‘Ali ibn Isma‘il ibn Abi Bishr Ishaq ibn Salim, Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari al-Yamani al-Basri al-Baghdadi (260-324), a descendent of the Yemeni Companion Abu Musa al-Ash`ari, was in the first half of his scholarly career a disciple of the Mu`tazili teacher Abu `Ali al-Jubba’i, whose doctrines he abandoned in his fortieth year after asking him a question al-Jubba’i failed to resolve over the issue of the supposed divine obligation to abandon the good for the sake of the better (al-sâlih wa al-aslah). At that time he adopted the doctrines of the sifatiyya, those of Ahl al-Sunna who assert that the divine Attributes are obligatorily characterized by perfection, unchanging, and without beginning, but He is under no obligation whatsoever to abandon the good for the sake of the better. He left Basra and came to Baghdad, and took fiqh from the Shafi`i jurist Abu Ishaq al-Marwazi (d. 340). He devoted the next twenty-four years to the refutation of “the Mu`tazila, the Rafida, the Jahmiyya, the Khawarij, and the rest of the various kinds of innovators” in the words of al-Khatib. His student Bundar related that his yearly expenditure was a meager seventeen dirhams.
Among al-Ash`ari’s books up to the year 320 as listed by himself in al-`Umad (“The Supports”)
Adab al-Jadal (“The Etiquette of Disputation”).
Al-Asma’ wa al-Ahkam (“The Names and the Rulings”), which describes the divergences in the terminology of the scholars and their understanding of the general and the particular.
Al-Dafi` li al-Muhadhdhab (“The Repelling of `The Emendation’”), a refutation of al-Khalidi’s book by that title.
Al-Funun (“The Disciplines”), a refutation of atheists. A second book bearing that title was also written, on the disciplines of kalâm.
Al-Fusul (“The Sub-Headings”) in twelve volumes, a refutation of the philosophers, perennialists, and members of various religions such as Brahmans, Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. It contains a refutation of Ibn al-Rawandi’s claim that the world exists without beginning.
Idah al-Burhan fi al-Radd `ala Ahl al-Zaygh wa al-Tughyan (“The Clarification of the Proof in the Refutation of Heretics”), a preliminary to al-Mujaz.
Al-Idrak (“The Awareness”), on the disciplines that address the subtleties of dialectic theology.
Al-Istita`a (“Potency”), a refutation of the Mu`tazila.
Al-Jawabat fi al-Sifat `an Masa’il Ahl al-Zaygh wa al-Shubuhat (“The Replies Pertaining to the Attributes On the Questions and Sophistries of Heretics”), al-Ash`ari’s largest work, a refutation of all the Mu`tazili doctrines he had upheld previously.
Al-Jawhar fi al-Radd `ala Ahl al-Zaygh wa al-Munkar (“The Essence: Refutation of the People of Heresy and Transgression”).
Al-Jism (“The Body”), a proof of the Mu`tazila’s inability to answer essential questions that pertain to corporeality, contrary to Ahl al-Sunna.
Jumal al-Maqalat (“The Sum of Sayings”), which lists the positions of atheists and the positions of monotheists.
Khalq al-A`mal (“The Creation of Deeds”), a refutation of the doctrine of the Mu`tazila and Qadariyya whereby man creates his own deeds.
Al-Luma` fi al-Radd `ala Ahl al-Zaygh wa al-Bida` (“The Sparks: A Refutation of Heretics and Innovators”), a slim volume.
Al-Luma` al-Kabir (“The Major Book of Sparks”), a preliminary to Idah al-Burhan and, together with the Luma` al-Saghir, the last work composed by al-Ash`ari according to our Shaykh `Isa al-Humyari.
Al-Luma` al-Saghir (“The Minor Book of Sparks”), a preliminary to al-Luma` al-Kabir.
Maqalat al-Falasifa (“The Sayings of Philosophers”).
Maqalat al-Islamiyyin wa Ikhtilfa al-Musallin (“The Discourses of the Proponents of Islam and the Differences Among the Worshippers”), an encyclopedia of Islamic sects.
Al-Masa’il `ala Ahl al-Tathniya (“The Questions in Refutation of the Dualists”).
al-Mujaz (“The Concise”) in twelve volumes, which identifies and describes the various Islamic sects. It contains a refutation of the Shi`i doctrines of the questioning of Abu Bakr al-Siddiq’s imamate and of the infallibility of the Imam in every era.
Al-Mukhtasar fi al-Tawhid wa al-Qadar (“The Abridgment: On the Doctrine of Oneness and Foreordained Destiny”), a review of the different doctrinal issues which the opponents of Ahl al-Sunna are unable to address.
Al-Mukhtazan (“The Safekeeping”), on the questions which opponents did not bring up but which pertain to their doctrines.
Al-Muntakhal (“The Sifted”), a response to questions from the scholars of Basra.
Naqd al-Balkhi fi Usul al-Mu`tazila (“Critique of al-Balkhi and the Principles of the Mu`tazila“), a refutation of the book of the Mu`tazili scholar al-Balkhi entitled Naqd Ta’wil al-Adilla (“Critique of the Interpretation of the Textual Proofs”).
Al-Nawadir fi Daqa’iq al-Kalam (“The Rarities Concerning the Minutiae of Dialectic Theology”).
Al-Qami` li Kitab al-Khalidi fi al-Irada (“The Subduer: A Refutation of al-Khalidi’s Book on the Will”), a refutation of a-Khalidi’s doctrine whereby Allah creates His own will.
Al-Radd `ala Ibn al-Rawandi (“Refutation of Ibn al-Rawandi”) concerning the Divine Attributes and the Qur’an.
Al-Radd `ala Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Wahhab al-Jubba’i, an extensive refutation of a Mu`tazili scholar and of his book al-Usul (“The Principles”).
Al-Radd `ala al-Mujassima (“Refutation of the Anthropomorphists”).
A refutation of `Abbad ibn Sulayman in the minutiae of kalâm.
A refutation of a book by `Ali ibn `Isa.
A refutation of al-Balkhi’s book in which the latter claimed he had rectified Ibn al-Rawandi’s error in his disputation.
A refutation of al-Iskafi’s book entitled al-Latif (“The Subtle”).
A refutation of al-Jubba’i on the principles and conditions of scholarly investigation and the derivation of rulings.
A Refutation of al-Jubba’i’s objections to al-Ash`ari on the vision of Allah in the hereafter as reported by Muhammad ibn `Umar al-Saymari.
A refutation of al-Khalidi’s book on the denial of the vision of Allah in the hereafter.
A refutation of al-Khalidi’s book on the denial of the creation of the deeds of human beings by Allah Almighty and Exalted according to His decision.
The refutation of the philosophers, especially the Perennialist Ibn Qays al-Dahri and Aristotle’s books “On the Heavens” and “On the World.”
Al-Ru’ya (“The Vision”), which affirms the vision of Allah by the believers in the hereafter, contrary to the Mu`tazili doctrine which denies the possibility of such a vision.
Al-Sharh wa al-Tafsil fi al-Radd `ala Ahl al-Ifk wa al-Tadlil (“The Detailed Explanation in Refutation of the People of Perdition”), a manual for beginners and students to read before al-Luma`.
Al-Sifat (“The Attributes”), a description of the doctrines of the Mu`tazila, Jahmiyya, and other sects that differ from Ahl al-Sunna on the topic of the Divine Attributes. It contains a refutation of Abu al-Hudhayl, Ma`mar, al-Nazzam, al-Futi, and al-Nashi, and an affirmation that the Creator possesses a face and hands.
Tafsir al-Qur’an wa al-Radd `ala man Khalafa al-Bayan min Ahl al-Ifki wa al-Buhtan (“A Commentary on the Qur’an and Refutation of Those Who Contradicted it Among the People of Perdition and Calumny”) which Ibn al-`Arabi al-Maliki says numbered 500 volumes. Ibn al-Subki reports from al-Dhahabi that this Tafsir was written at a time al-Ash`ari was still a Mu`tazili.
Various epistles in response to questions from the scholars of Tabaristan, Khurasan, Arrujan, Sayraf, Amman, Jurjan, Damascus, Wasit, Ramahramuz, Baghdad, Egypt, and Persia.
Ziyadat al-Nawadir (“Addenda to `The Rarities’”).
Among al-Ash`ari’s books between the year 320 and his death in 324 as listed by Ibn Furak:
Af`al al-Nabi Sallallahu `Alayhi wa Sallam (“The Acts of the Prophet – Allah bless and greet him”).
Al-Akhbar (“The Reports”).
Bayan Madhhab al-Nasara (“Exposition of the Doctrine of Christians”)
Hikayat Madhahib al-Mujassima (“The Tales of the Schools of the Anthropomorphists”), a refutation of the proofs they adduce.
Al-Ihtijaj (“The Adducing of the Proofs”).
Al-Imama (“The Doctrine of the Imam”).
Ithbat al-Qiyas (“The Upholding of the Principle of Analogy”).
Sessions around the lone-narrator report (al-khabar al-wâhid).
Mutashabih al-Qur’an (“The Ambiguities in the Qur’an”), in which he brought together the stands of the Mu`tazila and the atheists in their invalidations of the ambiguities in the hadith.
Naqd Ibn al-Rawandi `ala Ibtal al-Tawatur (“The Critique of Ibn al-Rawandi’s Denial of Mass-Narrated Hadiths”), which contains an affirmation of the principle of Consensus (ijmâ`).
Naqd al-Mudahat (“Critique of `The Similarity’”), a refutation of al-Iskafi on the term qadar.
Naqd al-Taj `ala al-Rawandi (“The Diadem: Critique of Ibn al-Rawandi”).
On questions put to al-Jubba’i concerning names and rulings.
A refutation of Abu al-Hudhayl on the limitlessness of the foreknowledge and decisions of Allah Almighty and Exalted and another on motions.
A refutation of Harith al-Warraq on the Attributes.
A refutation of the logicians.
A refutation of the proponents of metempsychosis and reincarnation.
al-`Umad (“The Supports”) on the vision of Allah in the hereafter.
Al-Wuquf wa al-`Umum (“The Abeyance of Rights and the Public at Large”).
After listing the above titles, Ibn `Asakir says: “I have seen other works not mentioned by Ibn Furak in his list.” He then proceeds to list the following:
Al-Hathth `ala al-Bahth (“The Encouragement to Research”).
Risala al-Iman, an epistle on Belief which discusses whether it is permissible to say that belief is created. Ibn Hajar heard it from Abu Ishaq al-Tannukhi with the latter’s chain of transmission back to al-Ash`ari, through the latter’s student Abu al-Hasan Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Miqsam al-Muqri’ al-Baghdadi.
Risala ila Ahl al-Thughar (“Epistle to the People of al-Thughar”), a definition on the doctrines of Ahl al-Sunna.
Ibn `Asakir then mentions that al-Ash`ari’s works number over two or three hundred books. As for the epistle entitled Istihsan al-Khawd fi `Ilm al-Kalam, al-Ash`ari most likely wrote it – provided he actually authored it – before his conversion, since it is ostensibly directed against the Hanbalis and uses markedly Mu`tazili terminology such as “divine Oneness and Justice” (al-tawhîd wa al-`adl) in reference to the fundamentals of belief.
The Corrupt Text of al-Ash`ari’s al-Ibana
The above lists exclude al-Ash`ari’s al-Ibana `an Usul al-Diyana but Ibn `Asakir explicitly attributes it to him in the first few pages of Tabyin Kadhib al-Muftari, an attribution confirmed by al-Bayhaqi, Abu al-`Abbas al-`Iraqi, Abu `Uthman al-Sabuni, and other hadith masters. The book dates from the beginnings of al-Ash`ari’s Sunni career according to a report narrated by Ibn Abi Ya`la in Tabaqat al-Hanabila and adduced by al-Dhahabi in the Siyar. The report is phrased rather oddly since it depicts a fawning Imam Abu al-Hasan al-Ash`ari visiting the Hanbali Abu Muhammad al-Barbahari upon entering Baghdad and enumerating before him his refutations of the Mu`tazila and defense of Ahl al-Sunna in order to win his approval, to which al-Barbahari coolly responds: “We only know what Ahmad ibn Hanbal said.” “Whereupon,” the report continues, “al-Ash`ari went out and wrote al-Ibana but they [the Hanbalis] did not accept it from him.” Al-Dhahabi cites this report at the opening of his biographical notice on al-Barbahari in the Siyar directly following the extremely brief notice on Imam al-Ash`ari. Apart from its obviously Hanbali-biased terms, the report clearly shows that al-Ash`ari composed the Ibana upon first coming to Baghdad or shortly thereafter. Shaykh Wahbi Ghawiji cites a statement explicitly confirming this date from Imam Abu al-Hasan `Ali ibn Ibrahim al-Muqri (Ibn Matar) who died in the year 306: “Imam al-Ash`ari composed it in Baghdad upon entering it.”
However, despite the authenticity of al-Ash`ari’s authorship, the text of the Ibana itself has undoubtedly not reached us in its original authentic form but in a corrupted version which comprises interpolations along two main ideological slants:
(1) the anthropomorphist interpretation of the divine Attributes and
(2) the apostatizing of Imam Abu Hanifa for supposedly holding, with the Jahmiyya, that the Qur’an was created.
Shaykh Wahbi Sulayman Ghawiji has shown in his analysis of the work entitled Nazra `Ilmiyya fi Nisba Kitab al-Ibana Jami`ihi ila al-Imam al-Ash`ari(“A Scientific Look at the Attribution of al-Ibana in Its Entirety to Imam al-Ash`ari”) that these two stances are contradicted by what is known of al-Ash`ari’s authentic positions in his and his students’ works.
The anthropomorphist interpretation of the divine Attributes is illustrated by the following examples:
The passage: “[Our position is] that He has two eyes (`aynayn) without saying how; just as He stated: That ran under Our eyes (a`yuninâ) (54:14).” Ibn `Asakir’s citation of the same passage in the Tabyin states: “[Our position is] that He has an eye (`aynan) without saying how.” A recent edition of theIbana consequently amended its own tradition to follow the text cited by Ibn `Asakir since the evidence of the Qur’an and the Sunna mentions My Eye(`aynî) (20:39) in the singular and Our Eyes (52:48, 54:14) in the plural but never two eyes in the dual. Further down in all versions of the Ibana the text states: “Allah Almighty and Exalted has said that He possesses a face and an eye which is neither given modality nor defined.”
The passage: “When supplicating, the Muslims raise their hands toward the sky, because Allah Almighty and Exalted is established (mustawin) over the Throne which is above the heavens… The Muslims all say: `O Dweller of the Throne’ (yâ sâkin al-`arsh)!” This kind of faulty reasoning can hardly come from al-Ash`ari for the following reasons:
The Attributes are divinely ordained (tawqîfiyya) and al-Ash`ari considers it impermissible to make up or derive new terms such as mustawin and sâkin al-`arsh if there is no verse or authentic hadith transmitting them verbatim: “My method in the acceptance of the Names of Allah is Law-based authorization without regard to lexical analogy.”
The argument of supplication on the basis of location leads to placing Allah Almighty and Exalted inside the Ka`ba according to the same logic, an absurd impossibility.
The claim that “the Muslims all say: `O Dweller of the Throne’” is unheard of. Yet Ibn Taymiyya cites it and attempts to justify it with the narration: “Allah created seven heavens then chose the uppermost and dwelt in it,” adducing a condemned report to support an invented phrase!
Three editions of the Ibana have, “O Dweller of the heaven (yâ sâkin al-`samâ’)” which further casts doubt on the integrity of the text in addition to being equally anthropomorphist.
The passage: “If we are asked: `Do you say that Allah has two hands?’ The answer is: We do say that, without saying `how.’ It is indicated by the saying of Allah Almighty and Exalted The Hand of Allah is above their hands (48:10) and His saying that which I have created with both My hands(38:75). It was also narrated from the Prophet – Allah bless and greet him – that he said: `Allah created Adam with His hand then He wiped his back with His hand and brought out of it his offspring.’ So it is established that He has two hands without saying how. And the transmitted report reached us from the Prophet – Allah bless and greet him – that `Allah created Adam with Hand, created the Garden of `Adn with His hand, wrote the Torah with His hand, and planted the tree of Tuba with His hand,’ that is: with the hand of His power (ay biyadi qudratih).” The last clause contradicts the entire reasoning that precedes and follows, and is actually suppressed from the latest edition of the Ibana! The text further states: “They say: `the hands’ (al-ayd) are the strength (al-quwwa), so the meaning of with both My hands has to be `with My power’ (bi qudratî). The answer to them is: That interpretation is wrong.” Al-Ash`ari’s actual position on the Attribute of hand according to Ibn `Asakir is: “Al-Ash`ari took the middle road [between the Mu`tazila and the anthropomorphists] and said: His hand is an Attribute and His face is an Attribute, just like His hearing and His sight.”
The following passage is missing from two of the editions of al-Ibana but is found in two others: “And [we believe] that He established Himself over the Throne in the sense that He said and the meaning that He wills in a way that transcends touch, settlement, fixity, immanence, and displacement. The Throne does not carry him, rather the Throne and its carriers are carried by the subtleness of His power, subdued under His grip. He is above the Throne and the Heavens and above everything to the limits of the earth with an aboveness which does not bring Him nearer to the Throne and the Heavens, just as it does not make Him further from the earth. Rather, He is Highly Exalted above the Throne and the Heavens, just as He is Highly Exalted above the earth. Nevertheless, He is near to every entity and is (nearer to [the worshipper] than his jugular vein) and He witnesses everything.”
2. The apostatizing of Imam Abu Hanifa for supposedly holding, with the Jahmiyya, that the Qur’an was created. Imam al-Tahawi stated that Abu Hanifa held the opposite position in his Mu`taqad Abi Hanifa or “Abu Hanifa’s Creed,” also known as the `Aqida Tahawiyya. Nor did al-Ash`ari mention Abu Hanifa in the chapter on those who held the Qur’an was created in his Maqalat al-Islamiyyin. Al-Ash`ari lived in Baghdad – the seat of the Caliphate and home of the Hanafi school – at a time the Hanafi school had long been the state creed and would probably have been executed or exiled for making such a charge. Furthermore, al-Bayhaqi stated that “al-Ash`ari used to defend the positions of the past Imams such as Abu Hanifa and Sufyan al-Thawri among the Kufans.” The charge of the Ibana is therefore almost certainly a later interpolation, as enmity against the Imam al-A`zam and his school and followers typifies fanatic Hanbalis and their “Salafi” successors.
There are also blatant errors which al-Ash`ari the heresiographer and former Mu`tazili would never commit, such as the attribution to the Mu`tazila as a whole of the belief that Allah Almighty and Exalted is everywhere, when he himself reports in his Maqalat that the vast majority of the Mu`tazila said, likeAhl al-Sunna, that it was the controlling disposal (tadbîr) of Allah Almighty and Exalted that was everywhere. Furthermore, there is apparently no known chain of transmission for the Ibana from the Imam despite its ostensible fame and the abundance of his students, nor do any of his first or second-generation students – such as Ibn Furak – make any mention of it. Finally, Imam al-Qushayri’s Shikaya Ahl al-Sunna bi Hikaya Ma Nalahum Min al-Mihna provides an additional external sign that the tampering of al-Ash`ari’s Ibana took place possibly as early as the fifth century:
They have attributed despicable positions to al-Ash`ari and claimed he had said certain things of which there is not one iota in his books. Nor can such sayings be found reported in any of the books of the scholars of kalâm who either supported him or opposed him, from the earliest times to our own – whether directly quoted or paraphrased. All of that is misrepresentation, forgery, and unmitigated calumny!
In conclusion it is possible to say with a fair degree of certainty that the Ibana attributed to al-Ash`ari today is actually the anonymous, chainless rewriting of an anti-Ash`ari, anti-Hanafi literalist with clear anthropomorphist leanings and a willingness to adduce Israelite reports typical of the works of anthropomorphist doctrine while the unaltered version known to Ibn `Asakir, Abu `Uthman al-Sabuni, and other Ash`aris did not reach us. It is a telling confirmation of this conclusion that the early anthropomorphists used to reject the Ibana while those of later centuries quote it without reservation. And Allah knows best.
Istiwâ’ [al-Qur’an 7:54; 13:2; 20:5; 25:59; 32:4]is one of the Attributes of acts (min sifât al-af‘âl) according to the majority of the explanations.” Al-Qurtubi.
“The establishment of His Throne in the heaven is known, and His Throne in the earth is the hearts of the People of Pure Monotheism (ahl al-tawhîd). He said: (and eight will uphold the Throne of their Lord that day, above them) (69:17), and [concerning] the throne of the hearts:
[We carry them on the land and the sea] (17:70).
As for the throne of the heaven: the Merciful established Himself over it (‘alayhi istawâ); and as for the throne of the hearts: the Merciful conquered it(‘alayhi istawlâ). The throne of the heaven is the direction of the supplication of creatures, while the throne of the heart is the locus of the gaze of the Real. Therefore, there is a huge difference between this throne and that!” – Al-Qushayri.
“We believe that [the Merciful established Himself over the Throne] (20:5), and we do not know the reality of the meaning of this nor what is meant by it (lâ na‘lamu haqîqata mi‘na dhâlika wa al-murâda bihi), while we do believe that [There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him] (42:11) and that He is exalted far above the most elevated of created things. That is the way of the Salaf or at least their vast majority, and it is the safest because one is not required to probe into such matters.” – Al-Nawawi.
Imam Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari said:
“The establishment of Allah on the Throne is an action He has created named istiwâ’ and related to the Throne, just as He has created an action named ityân (coming) related to a certain people; and this implies neither descent nor movement.” Al-Bayhaqi confirms this: “Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali al-Ash‘ari said that Allah effected an act in relation to the Throne, and He called that act istiwâ’, just as He effected other acts in relation to other objects, and He called those acts ‘sustenance’ (rizq), ‘favor’ (ni‘ma), or other of His acts.” This is also the interpretation of Ibn Hazm (d. 456) – although a vehement enemy of Ash‘aris – who explains istiwâ’ as “an act pertaining to the Throne”.
Abu al-Fadl al-Tamimi mentioned that two positions were reported from Imam Ahmad concerning istiwâ’: One group narrated that he considered it “of the Attributes of act” (min sifât al-fi‘l), another, “of the Attributes of the Essence” (min sifât al-dhât).” Ibn Battal mentions that Ahl al-Sunna hold either one of these two positions: “Those that interpreted istawâ as ‘He exalted Himself’ (‘alâ) consider istiwâ an Attribute of the Essence, while those who interpreted it otherwise consider it an Attribute of act.”
Al-Tamimi further related that Ahmad said:
[Istiwâ’]: It means height/exaltation (‘uluw) and elevation (irtifâ‘). Allah is ever exalted (‘âlî) and elevated (rafî‘) without beginning, before He created the Throne. He is above everything (huwa fawqa kulli shay’), and He is exalted over everything (huwa al-‘âlî ‘alâ kulli shay’). He only specified the Throne because of its particular significance which makes it different from everything else, as the Throne is the best of all things and the most elevated of them. Allah therefore praised Himself by saying that He (established Himself over the Throne) , that is, He exalted Himself over it (‘alayhi ‘alâ). It is impermissible to say that He established Himself with a contact or a meeting with it. Exalted is Allah above that! Allah is not subject to change, substitution, nor limits, whether before or after the creation of the Throne.
The Maliki scholar Ibn Abi Jamra (d. 695) said something similar in his commentary on the hadith “Allah wrote a Book before He created creation, saying: Verily My mercy precedeth My wrath; and it is written with Him above the Throne”:
It may be said from the fact that the Book is mentioned as being “above the Throne” that the divine wisdom has decreed for the Throne to carry whatever Allah wishes of the record of His judgment, power, and the absolute unseen known of Him alone, in order to signify the exclusivity of His encompassing knowledge regarding these matters. This makes the Throne one of the greatest signs of the exclusivity of His knowledge of the Unseen. This could explain the verse of istiwâ’ as referring to whatever Allah wills of His power, which is the Book He has placed above His Throne.”
Sufyan al-Thawri (d. 161) interpreted istiwâ’ in the verse (The Merciful established Himself over the Throne) (20:5) as “a command concerning the Throne” (amrun fi al-‘arsh), as related by Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni and quoted by al-Yafi‘i in the latter’s book Marham al-‘Ilal al-Mu‘dila fi Daf‘ al-Shubah wa al-Radd ‘ala al-Mu‘tazila (“Book of the Resolution of Difficult Problems for the Removal of Doubts and the Refutation of the Mu‘tazila”):
The understanding of istiwâ’ as the turning of Allah to a particular command concerning the Throne is not far-fetched, and this is the ta’wîl of Imam Sufyan al-Thawri, who took as corroborating evidence for it the verse: (Then turned He (thumma istawâ) to the heaven when it was smoke) (41:11), meaning: “He proceeded to it” (qasada ilayhâ).
Al-Tabari said, in his commentary on the verse (Then turned He (thumma istawâ) to the heaven, and fashioned it as seven heavens) (2:29):
The meaning of istiwâ’ in this verse is height (‘uluw) and elevation… but if one claims that this means displacement for Allah, tell him: He is high and elevated over the heaven with the height of sovereignty and power, not the height of displacement and movement to and fro.
The above position is exactly that of the Ash‘ari school, as shown by Abu Bakr ibn al-‘Arabi’s and Ibn Hajar’s numerous comments to that effect directed against those who attribute altitude to Allahn their interpretation of His ‘uluw such as Ibn Taymiyya. The latter stated: “The Creator, Glorified and Exalted is He, is above the world and His being above is literal, not in the sense of dignity or rank.” This doctrine was comprehensively refuted by Ibn Jahbal al-Kilabi (d. 733) in his Radd ‘ala Man Qala bi al-Jiha (“Refutation of Ibn Taymiyya Who Attributes A Direction to Allah “) and Shaykh Yusuf al-Nabahani (1265-1350) in his Raf‘ al-Ishtibah fi Istihala al-Jiha ‘ala Allah (“The Removal of Doubt Concerning the Impossibility of Direction for Allah”).
Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 597) in the introduction of his Daf‘ Shubah al-Tashbih said of the anthropomorphists: “They are not content to say: ‘Attribute of act’ (sifatu fi‘l) until they end up saying: ‘Attribute of the Essence’ (sifatu dhât).” Ibn Hazm also said: “If the establishment on the Throne is eternal without beginning, then the Throne is eternal without beginning, and this is disbelief.”
Al-Bayhaqi quotes one of the companions of al-Ash‘ari, Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali ibn Muhammad ibn Mahdi al-Tabari (d. ~380) as saying in his book Ta’wil al-Ahadith al-Mushkalat al-Waridat fi al-Sifat (“Interpretation of the Problematic Narrations Pertaining to the Attributes”): “Allahs in the heaven above everything and established (mustawin) over His Throne in the sense that He is exalted or elevated (‘âlin) above it, and the sense of istiwâ’ is self-elevation(i‘tilâ’).” This is the most widespread interpretation (ta’wîl) of the issue among the Salaf: al-Baghawi said that the meaning of the verse ( The Merciful established Himself over the Throne) (20:5) according to Ibn ‘Abbas and most of the commentators of Qur’an is “He elevated Himself” (irtafa‘a). This is the interpretation quoted by al-Bukhari in his Sahih from the senior Tâbi‘i Rufay‘ ibn Mahran Abu al-‘Aliya (d. 90). Al-Bukhari also cites from Mujahid (d. 102) the interpretation “to rise above” or “exalt Himself above” (‘alâ). Ibn Battal declares the latter to be the true position and the saying of Ahl al-Sunnabecause Allah described Himself as “the Sublimely Exalted” — ( al-‘Alî) (2:255) and said: ( exalted be He (ta‘âlâ) over all that they ascribe as partners (unto Him)!) (23:92).
In complete opposition to the above Ibn Taymiyya said in his Fatawa: “The establishment of Allah over the Throne is real, and the servant’s establishment over the ship is real” (lillâhi ta‘âlâ istiwâ’un ‘alâ ‘arshihi haqîqatan wa li al-‘abdi istiwâ’un ‘alâ al-fulki haqîqatan). “Allahs with us in reality, and He is above His Throne in reality (Allâhu ma‘ana haqîqatan wa huwa fawqa al-‘arshi haqîqatan).. . . Allahs with His creation in reality and He is above His Throne in reality (Allahu ma‘a khalqihi haqîqatan wa huwa fawqa al-‘arshi haqîqatan).”
Another interpretation commonly used by later Ash‘aris for istiwâ’ is that of istîlâ’ and qahr, respectively “establishing dominion” and “subduing.” Ibn ‘Abd al-Salam said:
His establishment (istiwâ’) over the Throne is a metaphor for establishing dominion (istîlâ’) over His kingdom and disposing of it, as the poet said:
qad istawâ Bishrun ‘ala al-‘Irâq
min ghayri sayfin wa damin muhrâq
Bishr established mastery over Iraq
without sword and without shedding blood.
It is a metaphor of similitude with kings, who dispose of the affairs of their kingdoms while sitting among the dynastic princes. The throne may also express rank, as in ‘Umar’s t saying: “My throne would have toppled if I had not found a merciful Lord.”
Ibn Battal and Abu Mansur al-Baghdadi attribute the interpretation as istîlâ’ chiefly to the Mu‘tazila. Ibn Hajar said:
The Mu‘tazila said its meaning is “establishing dominion through subjugation and overpowering” (al-istîlâ’ bi al-qahr wa al-ghalaba), citing as a proof the saying of the poet:
Bishr established mastery over Iraq
without sword and without shedding blood.
The anthropomorphists (al-jismiyya) said: “Its meaning is settledness (al-istiqrâr).” Some of Ahl al-Sunna said: “Its meaning is He elevated Himself(irtafa‘a)” while others of them said: “Its meaning is He rose above (‘alâ),” and others of them said: “Its meaning is sovereignty (al-mulk) and power (al-qudra).”
The latter Sunni interpretation is evidently similar to that of istîlâ’ and qahr. However, because the Mu‘tazila claimed that the divine Attributes were originated in time rather than uncreated and beginningless, their interpretation was rejected by the scholars of Ahl al-Sunna. Ibn Battal said: “The Mu‘tazilaposition is null and void, for Allahs qâhir, ghâlib, and mustawlî without beginning.” Ibn Battal is referring to the Ash‘ari position whereby the Attributes of acts such as creation, although connected with created objects, are without beginning in relation to Allah. To those who object to istawlâ on the grounds that it necessarily supposed prior opposition, Ibn Hajar similarly remarked that that assumption is discarded by the verse: (Allah was (kâna) ever Knower, Wise) (4:17), which the scholars explained to mean “He is ever Knower and Wise.”
Thus Dawud al-Zahiri’s objection that istîlâ’ necessitates a wresting from an adversary is not absolute among Ahl al-Sunna. The Ash‘ari grammarian al-Raghib al-Asfahani (d. 402) said that istawâ ‘alâ has the meaning of istawlâ ‘alâ (“He overcame”) and cited the verse of istiwâ (20:5) as an example of this meaning: “It means that everything is alike in relation to him in such manner that no one thing is nearer to Him than another thing, since He is not like the bodies that abide in one place exclusively of another place.” In this sense, both the Mu‘tazili position of origination for the Attributes and the literalist requirement of conquest-after-struggle are dismissed, and istawlâ can be safely admitted among the interpretations of Ahl al-Sunna. As Ibn Battal alluded, “establishing dominion and sovereignty,” “subduing,” and “conquering” no more suppose prior opposition in the face of the Creator than do His Attributes of “All-Victorious” (Zâhir) “All-Compelling” (Qahhâr), “Prevailer” (Ghâlib), or “Omnipotent” (Qâhir) presuppose resistance or power on anyone’s part. This is confirmed by the verses: (He is the Omnipotent (al-qâhir) over His slaves) (6:18, 6:61) and (Allah prevails (ghâlib) in His purpose) (12:21). Al-Raghib said: “It means that everything is alike in relation to him” and he did not say: “became alike.”
Ibn al-Jawzi mentions another reason for permitting this interpretation: “Whoever interprets [and He is with you] (57:4) as meaning ‘He is with you in knowledge,’ permits his opponent to interpret istiwâ’ as ‘subduing’ (al-qahr).”
As for the linguistic precedent of the meaning istawlâ for istawâ, it is provided by the poet al-Akhtal (d. <110) who said: “Bishr established mastery over(istawâ ‘alâ) Iraq without sword and without shedding blood.” Some “Salafis” reject this linguistic proof on the ground that al-Akhtal was a second-century Christian. This shows ignorance of agreed-upon criteria for the probative force of Arabic poetry in the Shari‘a, which extends at least to the year 150 and applies regardless of creed.
Dr. Muhammad Sa‘id Ramadan al-Buti said:
The consensus in place regarding these texts is the refraining from applying to them any meaning which establishes a sameness or likeness between Allah and His creatures, and the refraining from divesting their established lexical tenor.
The obligatory way to proceed is either to explain these words according to their external meanings which conform with divine Transcendence above any like or partner, and this includes not explaining them as bodily appendages and other corporeal imagery. Therefore it will be said, for example: He has established Himself over the Throne as He has said, with an establishment which befits His Majesty and Oneness; and He has a Hand as He has said, which befits His Divinity and Majesty; etc.
Or they can be explained figuratively according to the correct rules of language and in conformity with the customs of speech in their historical context. For example: the establishment is the establishment of dominion (istîlâ’) and that of authority (tasallut); the hand of Allahs His strength in His saying: (The hand of Allahs over their hand) (48:10) and His generosity in His saying: (Nay, both His hands are spread wide, and He bestows as He wills)(5:64).
As for the interpretation of istiwâ’ as sitting (julûs), it is asserted in the book attributed to ‘Abd Allahbn Ahmad ibn Hanbal under the title Kitab al-Sunna (p. 5, 71): “Is establishment (istiwâ’) other than by sitting (julûs)?” “Allah sits on the kursî and there remains only four spans vacant.” Al-Khallal in his ownKitab al-Sunna (p. 215-216) states that whoever denies that “Allah sits on the kursî and there remains only four spans vacant” is an unbeliever. ‘Uthman al-Darimi went so far as to say in his Naqd al-Jahmiyya: “If He so willed, He could have settled on the back of a gnat and it would have carried Him thanks to His power and the favor of His lordship, not to mention the magnificient Throne.” Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn al-Qayyim endorsed these views. Al-Kawthari wrote in his Maqalat: “Whoever imagines that our Lord sits on the kursî and leaves space at His side for His Prophet to sit, he has followed the Christians who believe that ‘Isa u was raised to heaven and sat next to his Father – Allahs elevated above the partnership they ascribe to Him!”
Al-Munawi quotes the following conclusion on the verse of the Throne upon the water:
Al-Tunisi said that the verse (And His Throne was upon the water) (11:7) contains a clear proof that direction is impossible for Allah because the Throne settled (istaqarra) upon the water, therefore, since natural custom was broken by the settlement of that huge mass (jirm) – the largest of all masses – upon the water, contrary to the habitual fact that such a mass – or, rather, much less than it! – does not usually settle upon the water: it becomes known with certitude that istiwâ’ over it is not an istiwâ’ of settledness nor fixity.
The above proof is similar to the proof derived from Imam Malik’s statement: “The establishment is known, the ‘how’ is inconceivable, and to ask about it is an innovation!” Shaykh al-Islam Taqi al-Din al-Subki pointed out that the inconceivability of the modality of istiwâ’ proved that it precluded the meaning of sitting.
In his Qur’anic commentary entitled Lata’if al-Isharat (“The Subtle Signs”), Imam Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri (d. 465) – together with Imam al-Haramayn Ibn al-Juwayni and al-Khatib al-Baghdadi the main figure in the fourth generation-layer of al-Ash‘ari’s students – sums up the position of Ahl al-Sunnaconcerning istiwâ’:
(He established Himself over the Throne) (7:54; 13:2; 20:5; 25:59; 32:4), however, the One without beginning has no limit (al-qadîm laysa lahu hadd). He “established Himself over the Throne,” however, it is impermissible to attribute to Him proximity with His Essence nor remoteness. He “established Himself over the Throne,” however, the Throne would be the most needful of all things to an iota of connection (al-wisâl) [with Him] if it were only alive! But it is a lifeless solid, and when did solids ever possess volition? He “established Himself over the Throne,” however, He is the Everlasting Sovereign (al-Samad) without rival, the Unique without limit.
Many people today like to classify themselves as belonging to the Saved Sect (Firqatun-Najiyyah) – Ahl as-Sunnah Wa’l Jama’ah; but do these people really know which is the Saved Sect, from the many sects we have today? The following is an attempt to clarify some misconceptions by way of definitive proofs from the Qur’an and Sunnah, as well as quotes from the profoundly learned Classical Scholars of Islam. Know that there is only one Saved Sect in Islam, and this is the original pristine form of Islam that has been transmitted to us by Allah Subhana Wa Ta’ala in his Qur’an, his Rasul (Peace and blessings be upon him), the blessed Companions (may Allah be pleased with them all) and the great scholars of Islam (Allah’s mercy be upon them all) who have been following their Straight Path for more than one thousand years of Islam’s history. The first question that should be raised is: “What differentiates one sect from another sect?” The answer to this is simple and definitive! Know that the chief characteristic that distinguishes one sect from another, lies not in the differences of opinion that its scholars have attained by making ijtihad from the sources of the Shari’ah (this leads to the formation of the Madhhabs), but rather the actual belief (aqid’ah or i’tiqad in Arabic) that the scholars and laity of the sect in question are clinging onto – since the founding of their respective sect.
According to the unknown author of the book Belief and Islam (pp. 78-9), the faith of the People of the Sunnah and Jama’ah was spread as follows:
“Nowadays, some mouths frequently use the name of ‘Salafiyya’. Every Muslim should know very well that in Islam there is nothing in the name of the Madhhab of Salafiyya but there is the Madhhab of the Salaf as-salihin who were the Muslims of the first two Islamic centuries (i.e; the Companions, their successors and the followers of the successors) which were lauded in a Hadith sharif. The ulama of Islam who came in the third and fourth centuries are called Khalaf as-sadiqin. The i’tiqad (belief) of these honourable people is called the Madhhab of Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah. This is the Madhhab of Iman, tenets of faith. The Iman held by the Sahaba al-Kiram (may Allah be pleased with them all) and by theTabi’un (Allah’s mercy be upon them all) was the same. There was no difference between their beliefs. Today most Muslims in the world are in the Madhhab of Ahl as-Sunnah (i.e; most Muslim’s claim to be Sunni’s). All the seventy-two heretical groups (see later for the actual Hadith and its commentary) of bid’ah appeared (mainly) after the second century of Islam. Founders of some of them lived earlier, but it was after the Tabi’unthat their books were written, and that they appeared in groups and defied the Ahl as-Sunnah.
Rasulullah (Peace and blessings be upon him) brought the beliefs of Ahl as-Sunnah. The Sahaba al-kiram (may Allah be pleased with them all) derived these teachings of Iman from the source (the Qur’an and Sunnah). And the Tabi’un (successors), in their turn, learned these teachings from the Sahaba al-kiram. And from them their successors learned, thus the teachings of Ahl as-Sunnah reached us by way of transmission and tawatur (through many undeniable chains of transmission). These teachings cannot be explored by way of reasoning. Intellect cannot change them and will only help understand them. That is, intellect is necessary for understanding them, for realizing that they are right and for knowing their value. All the scholars of Hadith held the beliefs of the Ahl as-Sunnah. The Imams of the four Madhhabs in deeds, too, were in this Madhhab. Also, al-Maturidi and al-Ashari (Allah’s mercy be upon them), the two Imam’s of our Madhhab in beliefs, were in the Madhhab of the Ahl as-Sunnah. Both of these Imams promulgated this Madhhab. They always defended this Madhhab against heretics and materialists, who had been stuck in the bogs of ancient Greek philosophy. Though they were contemporaries, they lived in different places and the ways of thinking and behaving of the offenders they had met were different, so the methods of defence used and the answers given by these two great scholars of Ahl as-Sunnah were different. But this does not mean that they belonged to different Madhhabs (rather they were both from the Ahl as-Sunnah). Hundreds of thousands of profoundly learned ulama and awliya (friends of Allah) coming after these two exalted Imams studied their books and stated in consensus that they both belonged to the Madhhab of the Ahl as-Sunnah. The scholars of the Ahl as-Sunnah took the nass (Qur’an and Sunnah) with their outward meanings. That is, they gave the ayats and Hadiths their outward meanings, and did not explain away (ta’wil) thenass or change these meanings unless there was a darura (necessity) to do so. And they never made any changes with their personal knowledge or opinions. But those who belonged to heretical groups and the la-Madhhabi (those who do not belong to one of the four Madhhabs) did not hesitate to change the teachings of Iman and Ibadat (worship) as they had learned from (the books of) Greek philosophers and from sham scientists, who were Islam’s adversaries.”
Let us now see what the definition of Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah was according to the classical scholars of this aided, Victorious sect (Tai’fatul-Mansoorah) of Islam.
(1) Shaykh al-Islam Ahmad ibn Hajar al-Haytami (d. 974/1567; R.A.)
Hafiz Ibn Hajar al-Haytami defined the Sunni Muslims as follows in his book Fath al-jawad:
“A mubtadi (innovator) is the person who does not have the faith (aqid’ah) conveyed unanimously by the Ahl as-Sunnah. This unanimity was transmitted by the two great Imam’s Abu’l Hasan al-Ashari (d.324/936; Rahimahullah) and Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (d.333/944; Rahimahullah) and the scholars who followed their path.” Hafiz Ibn Hajar al-Haytami also said in his book al-Fatawa al-Hadithiyya (pg. 205): “Man of bid’ah means one whose beliefs are different from the Ahl as-Sunnah faith. The Ahl as-Sunnah faith, is the faith of Abu’l Hasan al-Ashari, Abu Mansur al-Maturidi and those who followed them. One who brings forth something which is not approved by Islam becomes a man of bid’ah.”
(2) Imam Ahmad Shihab ad-Din al Qalyubi (d.1069/1659; R.A.)
Imam al-Qalyubi wrote on the fourth volume of his marginalia to the book Kanz ar-raghibin:
“One who departs from what Abu’l Hasan al-Ashari and Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (Allah’s mercy be upon them) reported is not a Sunni. These two Imam’s followed the footprints of Rasulullah (Peace be upon him) and his Sahaba (may Allah be pleased with them all).”
(3) Imam Abdullah ibn Alawi al-Haddad (d. 1132 AH; Rahimahullah)
Imam al-Haddad stated in The Book of Assistance (pg. 40):
“You must correct and protect your beliefs and conform to the pattern of the party of salvation, who are those known from among the other Islamic factions as the “People of the Sunnah and Jama’ah” (Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah). They are those who firmly adhere to the way of the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him), and of his Companions (may Allah be pleased with them all).
If you look with a sound understanding into those passages relating to the sciences of faith in the Book (Qur’an), the Sunnah, and the saying of the virtuous predecessors, whether they be Companions or followers, you will know for certain that the truth is with the party called the Ashari (NB-the Maturidi’s are also upon the truth), named after the Shaykh Abu’l Hasan al-Ashari, may Allah have mercy on him, who systematized the foundations of the creed of the people of the truth, and recorded its earliest versions, these being the beliefs with the Companions and the best among the followers agreed upon.”
(4) Imam Abdal Ghani an-Nablusi (d. 1143/1733; Rahimahullah)
Imam an-Nablusi stated in his book al-Hadiqat an-Nadiyya (vol. 2, pg. 103):
“Jama’ah is rahma, that is, the union of Muslims on truth brings Allahu ta’ala’s Compassion. Tafriqa is adhab, that is, separation from the Community of Muslims brings about punishment from Allahu ta’ala. Hence, it is necessary for every Muslim to unite with those who are on the right path. He must join and believe like them even if they are only a small group. The right path is the path of as-Sahaba al-Kiram. Those who follow this path are called Ahl as-Sunnah Wa’l Jama’ah. It should not confuse us that many heretical groups appeared after the time of as-Sahaba al-Kiram. Al-Imam al-Bayhaqi (d. 458/1066; Rahimahullah) said, ‘When Muslims go astray, you should follow the right path of those who came before them! You should not give up that path even if you are left alone on the path!‘ Najm ad-Din al-Ghazzi (d. 1061/1651; Rahimahullah) wrote: ‘Ahl as-Sunnah Wa’l Jama’ah are those ulama who keep on the right path of Rasullullah (Peace and blessings be upon him) and as-Sahaba al-Kiram. As-Sawad al-Azam, that is, the majority of Islamic scholars, have followed this right path. The Firqatun-Naajiyyah which was defined to be the group of salvation among the seventy three groups is this true Jama’ah.‘ The Qur’an al-Karim declares, ‘Do not disunite!‘ This ayat means ‘Do not disunite in i’tiqad, in the teachings of beliefs!‘ Most ulama, for example, Abdullah ibn Masood (may Allah be pleased with him), interpreted this ayat as above and said that it meant, ‘Do not deviate from the right path by following your desires and corrupt ideas.‘ This ayat does not mean that there should be no disagreement in the knowledge of fiqh. It forbids separation which causes discord and dissension in the knowledge of i’tiqad (see Imam al-Qurtubi’s opinion later). The disagreement in the knowledge (of fiqh) derived through ijtihad in the field of practices (amal) is not a discord, because such disagreement has brought to sight the rights, the fards and the subtle teachings in amal andIbadah (worship). As-Sahaba al-kiram (Allah be pleased with them all), too, differed from one another in those teachings that explained the daily life, but there was no disagreement among them in the knowledge of i’tiqad.”
(5) Allamah Sayyid Ahmad at-Tahtawi (d. 1231/1816; Rahimahullah)
Allamah Sayyid Ahmad at-Tahtawi, a great Hanafi fiqh scholar of Egypt, wrote on the subject of ‘Zabayih‘ in his Hashiya al-Durr al-Mukhtar:
“According to the majority of scholars of tafsir, the ayat, ‘They parted into groups in the religion,‘ referred to the people of bid’ah who would arise in this Ummah. In a Hadith reported by Umar (may Allah be pleased with him), Rasulullah (Peace and blessings be upon him) said to Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her), ‘The ayat about the partitions into groups in the religion refers to the people of bid’ah and to the followers of their nafs who would arise in this Ummah.’ Allah declared in the 153rd ayat of Surah Al-An’am, ‘This is My Straight path, so follow it! Follow not other ways, lest you be parted from His way!‘ (that is, Jews, Christians, and other heretics departed from the right path; you should not part like them!). In the 103rd ayat of Surah Al-Imran, Allah declares, ‘And hold fast, all of you together, to the rope of Allah, and do not separate!‘ (see later for a brief commentary). Some scholars of tafsir said that Allah’s rope meant Jama’ah, unity. The command, ‘Do not separate‘, shows that it is so and the Jama’ah are the possessors of fiqh and ilm (knowledge). One who descents from fuqaha (scholars of fiqh) as much as a span falls into heresy, becomes deprived of Allah’s help and deserves Hell, because the fuqaha have been on the right path and have held on to the Sunnah of Rasulullah (Peace and blessings be upon him) and on to the path of al-Khulafa ar-Rashideen, the Four Khaliphs (may Allah be pleased with them). As-Sawad al-Azam, that is, the majority of the Muslims, are on the path of fuqaha. Those who depart from their path will burn in the fire of Hell. O believers! Follow the unique group which is protected against Hell! And this group is the one that is called Ahl as-Sunnah Wa’l Jama’ah. For, Allah’s help, protection and guidance are for the followers of this group, and His wrath and punishment are for those who dissent from this group. Today, this group of salvation comes together in the Four Madhhabs, namely the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali.”
It is very important to have unity in the Ummah, and to achieve this goal of unity it is incumbent that the whole Ummah has the correct and preservedaqidah of the Salaf as-salihin (may Allah be pleased with them all); since Allah will no doubt ask us about our aqidah if it is not in conformity with the divine revelation and what his Messenger (Peace and blessings be upon him) transmitted to us. The way of the Salaf as-salihin is the way of the saved sect of the Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah. And we should all know that the Jama’ah is the sect which has the most correct and united aqid’ah out of all other Jama’ahs. To know what is the real Jama’ah, one must look into the Qur’an and Hadith for evidence. If one was to look deeply in to this matter with an open and scholarly mind, one will come to the conclusion that this great Jama’ah is the one which is composed of the foremost scholars of Qur’anic commentary, Hadith, fiqh and other Islamic sciences; it is no doubt the Jama’ah which has had the greatest following throughout Islamic history in terms of scholars and laity, and this alone is the main body of Islam which represents the views of the great mass of believers (as-Sawad al-Azam) as we shall see from the Hadith evidence below. Let us now see what Allah ta’ala has said about unity and schism in the Holy Qur’an.
(1) Surah al-Imran (3:103):
“And hold fast, all of you together, to the rope of Allah and be not divided.”
Imam Sayf ad-Din al-Amidi (d. 631/1233; Rahimahullah) said in his al-Ihkam fi usul al-ahkam (The proficiency: on the fundamentals of legal rulings, pg. 295) with regard to the above Qur’anic verse:
“Allah has forbidden separation, and disagreement with consensus (ijma) is separation.”
Hence, if Allah has forbidden separation then surely we must all unite on the unanimously accepted aqid’ah of our pious predecessors. And I have already quoted Hafiz Ibn Hajar al-Haytami (Rahimahullah) as saying: “This unanimity (in aqidah) was transmitted by the two great Imam’s Abu’l Hasan al-Ashari and Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (Allah’s mercy be upon them) and the scholars who followed their path.”
Mahmoud Ayoub wrote in The Qur’an and Its Interpreters (vol. II, 275-6):
“Ibn Kathir (d. 774/1373; Rahimahullah) interprets the ‘rope of God‘ in verse 103 as ‘The covenant of God,‘ citing in support of this interpretation verse 112 below (in Surah al-Imran). Another view, he adds, is that ‘The rope of God‘ here refers to the Qur’an, as reported on the authority of Ali (Allah be pleased with him) who said that ‘The Qur’an is God’s strong rope and the straight way.‘ He cites another Hadith, on the authority of Abu Sa’id al-Khudri (Allah be pleased with him), where the Prophet (Peace be upon him) declared, ‘The book of God is God’s rope stretched from heaven to earth.‘ Abd Allah ibn Mas’ud (Allah be pleased with him) reported -that the Messenger of God (Peace be upon him) said, ‘Surely this Qur’an is God’s strong rope, manifest light, and beneficial source of healing. It is protection for those who hold fast to it, and a means of salvation for those who abide by it.‘
Ibn Kathir interprets the injunction, ‘and do not be divided‘ to mean strict adherence to unity among Muslims. He reports on the authority of Abu Hurayrah (Allah be pleased with him) that the Prophet (Peace be upon him) said, ‘God will be pleased with three acts from you, and wrathful with three others. He wishes that you worship Him alone without associating any thing with Him; that you hold fast all together to the rope of God and be not divided; and that you show loyalty to those whom God has set in authority.‘ (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, II, pp. 83-4)
Qurtubi (d. 671/1273; Rahimahullah) agrees with Tabari (d. 923 CE; Rahimahullah) and Ibn Kathir regarding the meaning of ‘the rope of God‘ in verse 103. He cites with approval the famous traditionist Ibn al-Mubarak (d. 181/797; Rahimahullah) who said, ‘Surely unity is God’s rope; therefore hold fast all together to ‘its firm handle‘ (see Qur’an 2:256).’ Qurtubi adds that ‘God enjoins concord and forbids dissension, for in disunity is perdition, and in unity salvation.‘
Qurtubi offers two possible interpretations of the phrase ‘And be not divided‘:
‘Be not divided in your religion as were the Jews and Christians divided in their religions‘ and ‘Be not divided in following different false opinions and purposes. Rather, be brothers in God’s religion.‘
As a jurist, Qurtubi observes that, ‘There is no indication in this verse of the prohibition of disagreement in the branches (furu’) [of fiqh] as this in reality is not dissension. This is because true dissention is one wherein concord and unity become virtually impossible. As for disagreement in judgements based on personal effort (ijtihad), it is due to differences in deducing obligations (fara’id) and the minutiae of law.‘ On page 279, Imam al-Razi (d. 606/1210; Rahimahullah) was quoted as saying in conclusion to his commentary on the above ayat:
‘If a person going down into a well must hold fast to a rope in order that he may not fall in, so also the Book of God, His covenant, religion and obedience to Him, as well as unity and harmony among the people of faith are means of security for anyone who holds fast to them from falling into the bottom of Hell.'”
(2) Surah al-Imran (3:105):
“And be not like those who separated and disputed after the clear proofs had come unto them: For such there is an awful doom.”
(3) Surah al-Imran (3:110):
“Ye are the best community that has been raised up for mankind. Ye enjoin the good and forbid the evil; and ye believe in Allah”
(4) Surah Al-An’am (6:159):
“As for those who divide their religion and break up into sects, thou has no part in them in the least: Their affair is with Allah: He will in the end tell them the truth of all that they did.”
(5) Surah Al-Mu’minun (23:52-53):
“And verily this Ummah of yours is a single Ummah and I am your Lord, so keep your duty unto Me. But they have broken their religion among them into sects, each sect rejoicing in its tenets.”
(6) Surah Al-Rum (30:32):
“Those who split up their Religion, and become Sects, each sect exulting in its tenets.”
(7) Surah Al-Nisa (4:115):
“He that disobeys the Apostle (Muhammad) after guidance has been made clear to him and follows a way other than that of the believers, We appoint for him that unto which he himself hath turned, and expose him unto Hell – a hapless journey’s end!”
(8) Surah Al-An’am (6:153):
“This is My Straight path, so follow it. Follow not other ways, lest ye be parted from His way. This has he ordained for you, that ye may ward off (evil).“
(1) Imam Abu Dawood (Rahimahullah) has quoted the well known Hadith concerning the division of the Muslim Ummah into seventy-three sects in his Sunan (3/4580, English edn):
Abu Amir al-Hawdhani said, “Mu’awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan (may Allah be pleased with him) stood among us and said, ‘Beware! The Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) stood among us and said’: ‘Beware! The People of the Book before (you) were split up into 72 sects, and this community will be split up into 73, seventy-two of them will go to Hell and one of them will go to Paradise, and it is the majority group (Jama’ah).’
Another version of the above Hadith has been reported by Hafiz Ibn Kathir (Rahimahullah) in The signs before the day of Judgement (pg. 14):
“Awf ibn Malik reported that the Prophet (Peace be upon him) said, ‘The Jews split into 71 sects: one will enter Paradise and 70 will enter Hell. The Christians split into 72 sects: 71 will enter Hell and one will enter Paradise. By Him in Whose hand is my soul, my Ummah will split into 73 sects: one will enter Paradise and 72 will enter Hell.’ Someone asked, ‘O Messenger ofAllah (Peace be upon him), who will they be?’ He replied, ‘The main body of the Muslims (al-Jama’ah).’ Awf ibn Malik is the only one who reported this Hadith, and its isnad is acceptable.” And in another version of this Hadith the Prophet (Peace be upon him) goes onto say that the saved sect, “…Are those who follow my and my Sahaba’s path” (Tirmidhi, vol. 2, pg. 89)
Shaykh al-Islam Ahmad al-Sirhindi (d. 1034/1624; Rahimahullah) who is regarded by many people in the Indian sub-continent as a great renovator of the Tenth Islamic Century (Mujaddid alf Thani) wrote in his Maktubat (Vol. 3, Letter 38):
“It was declared in a Hadith that this Ummah would part into 73 groups, 72 of which would go to Hell. This Hadith informs us that the 72 groups will be tormented in the Fire of Hell. It does not inform us that they will remain in torment eternally. Remaining in the torment of Hell Fire eternally is for those who do not have Iman. That is, it is for disbelievers. The 72 groups, on account of their corrupt beliefs, will go to Hell and will burn as much as the corruptness of their beliefs. One group, the 73rd, will be saved from Hell Fire because their belief is not corrupt. If among the members of this one group there are those who committed evil deeds and if these evil deeds of theirs have not been forgiven through repentance or intercession, it is possible that these, too, will burn in Hell as much as their sins. All of those who are in the 72 groups will go to Hell. But none of them will remain in Hell eternally. Not all of those who are in this one group will go to Hell. Of these only those who have committed evil deeds will go to Hell. The 72 reported groups of bid’ah, which will go to Hell, should not be called disbelievers, because they are Ahl al-Qibla (people of the Qibla in prayer). But, of these, the ones who disbelieve those facts in the Deen that are indispensably required to be believed, as well as those who deny the rules of the Shari’ah which every Muslim has heard and knows, become disbelievers.”
In another letter (vol. 1, letter 80) he said:
“There is no doubt whatsoever that the sect that made conforming to the conduct of the Prophet’s Companions (may Allah be pleased with them all) necessary, that alone is the Ahl as Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah.”
Shaykh Abdal Qadir al-Jilani (d. 561/1166; Rahimahullah) stated in his commentary to the above Hadith in Ghunyat at-Talibin (pg. 90),
“The Believer should adapt himself to the Sunnah and to the Jama’ah. The Sunnah is the way shown by Rasulullah (Peace be upon him). The Jama’ah is composed of the things done unanimously by the Sahaba al-Kiram who lived in the time of the four caliphs called Khulafa’ ar-Rashidin (and others in their path). A Muslim must prevent the multiplication of the men of bid’ah and keep away from them, and should not greet them (as given in many Hadith on this issue). Ahmad ibn Hanbal (rahimahullah), the Imam of our Madhhab, said that greeting a man ofbid’ah meant loving him since it had been declared in a Hadith, ‘Disseminate (your) greeting (salaam)! Love one another in this way!” He also said (pg. 143): “The title, Ahl as-Sunnah, which the innovators have expressed for themselves is not appropriate for them.“
Although Ibn Taymiyya was accused of holding certain corrupt points in his aqid’ah, which led so many scholars to denounce him for his heresy, he never the less hit the right point when he described those who are the real Sunni’s in his Aqeedat-il-Wasitiyyah (pg. 154):
” Their creed is the religion of Islam which was sent to the world by Allah through the Prophet (Peace be upon him). But the Prophet (Peace be upon him) said, ‘My Ummah will get divided into 73 sects and each one will go to Hell save one and that one is the Jama’at.’ Also in one Hadith he said, ‘They are those people who will follow this path which I and my Sahaba follow today.’ Therefore they have caught hold of Islam unalloyed from every adulteration and these are the people of Ahl as-Sunnah Wa’l Jama’ah. This group includes the truthful, the martyrs and the virtuous; it includes the minarets of guidance, lamps in the darkness and owners of such superiorities and virtues who have been already mentioned. It includes the saints and also those Imams on whose guidance Muslims are unanimous. It is this successful group about which the Prophet (Peace be upon him) has said: ‘One group from my Ummah will always remain dominant with truth; the opponents will never be able to harm its members or afflict them upto the Doomsday.'”
(2) Imam Muslim (Rahimahullah) has collected a number of variant Hadith on the saved sect. He has related a longer version of the last Hadith quoted above:
“Abdal Rahman ibn Shamasa al-Mahri said: ‘I was in the company of Maslama bin Mukhallad and Abdullah ibn Amr ibn al-Aas (may Allah be pleased with them).’ Abdullah said, ‘The Hour shall come only when the worst type of people are left on the earth. They will be worse than the people of pre-Islamic days. They will get what ever they ask of Allah.‘ While we were sitting Uqba ibn Amir came, and Maslama said to him, ‘Uqba, listen to what Abdullah says.‘ Uqba said, ‘He knows, so far as I am concerned, I heard the Prophet (Peace be upon him) say: A group of people from my Ummah will continue to fight in obedience to the Command of Allah, remaining dominant over their enemies. Those who will opose them shall not do them any harm. They will remain in this condition until the Hour over takes them.‘ (At this) Abdullah said, ‘Yes. Then Allah will raise a wind which will be fragrant like musk and whose touch will be like the touch of silk; (but) it will cause the death of all (faithful) persons, not leaving behind a single person with an iota of faith in his heart. Then only the worst of men will remain to be overwhelmed by the Hour.’” (Sahih Muslim, 3/4721, English ed’n, see also Sahih al-Bukhari, 9/414, English ed’n)
Imam Nawawi (d. 676/1277, Rahimahullah) said in his Sharh Muslim (vol. 2, pg. 143):
“The group of people (mentioned in the above Hadith) consists of scholars, jurisprudents, authorities on Hadith, those who enjoin Good (Maroof) and forbid Evil (Munkar) and all such persons who do good deeds. Such righteous persons may be found spread all over the world.”
Imam al-Tirmidhi (Rahimahullah) said:
“The explanation of al-Jama’ah according to the people of knowledge: They are the people of fiqh, knowledge and Hadith.” (Sunan al-Tirmidhi, 4/2167; Ahmad Shakir ed’n)
Imam Bukhari (Rahimahullah) stated in his Sahih (vol. 9, chapter. 10, English ed’n),
“The statement of the Prophet (Peace be upon him): ‘A group of my followers will remain victorious in their struggle in the cause of the Truth.’ Those are the religious(ly) learned men (Ahl ul-Ilm).”
Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (Rahimahullah) said about this group:
“If it is not the people of Hadith, then I do not know who they may be.” (Sahih Muslim Sharif-Mukhtasar Sharh Nawawi, vol. 5, pg. 183, W. Zaman)
Qadi Iyad (Rahimahullah) said in ash-Shifa (pg. 188):
“In a Hadith from Abu Umama (Allah be pleased with him), the Prophet (Peace be upon him) said, `A group of my community will remain constant to the truth, conquering their enemy until the command of Allah comes to them while they are still in that condition.‘ He was asked, ‘Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him), where are they?‘ He replied, `In Jerusalem.‘”
(3) Imam Muslim (Rahimahullah) has related in his Sahih (3/4553) under the chapter heading ‘Instruction to stick to the main body of the Muslims in the time of the trials and warning against those inviting people to disbelief‘, a Hadith on the authority of Hudhaifa ibn al-Yaman (Allah be pleased with him), who said:
“People used to ask the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) about the good times, but I used to ask him about (the) bad times fearing lest they overtake me. I said, ‘Messenger of Allah, we were in the midst of ignorance and evil, and then God brought us this good (time through Islam). Is there any bad time after this good one?’ He said, ‘Yes’. I asked, ‘Will there be a good time again after that bad time?’ He said, ‘Yes, but therein will be a hidden evil.’ I asked, ‘What will be the evil hidden therein?’ He said, ‘(That time will witness the rise of) the people who will adopt ways other than mine and seek guidance other than mine. You will know good points as well as bad points.’ I asked, ‘Will there be a bad time after this good one?’ He said, ‘Yes. (A time will come) when there will be people standing and inviting at the gates of Hell. Whoso responds to their call, they will throw them into the fire.’ I said, ‘Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him), describe them for us.’ He said, ‘All right. They will be a people having the same complexion as ours and speaking our language.’ I said, `Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him), what do you suggest if I happen to live in their time?’ He said, ‘You should stick to the main body of the Muslims and their leader’ I said, ‘If they have no (such thing as the) main body of the Muslims and have no leader?’ He said, ‘Separate yourself from all these factions, though you may have to eat the roots of trees until death comes to you and you are in this state.'”
(NB-It is not likely that there will be an absence of a Jama’ah, since I have already quoted the Prophet, peace be upon him, as saying: ‘A group of people from my Ummah will continue to fight in obedience to the command of Allah, remaining dominant over their enemies. Those who will oppose them shall not do them any harm. They will remain in this condition until the Hour overtakes them.‘)
(4) Abu Hurayra (Allah be pleased with him) reported the Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him) as saying:
“Who (ever) defected from the obedience (to the Amir) and separated from the main body of the Muslims – then he died in that state – would die the death of one belonging to the days of Jahiliyya (pre-Islamic ignorance). And he who is killed under the banner of a man who is blind (to the cause for which he is fighting), who gets flared up with family pride and fights for his tribe – is not from my Ummah, and whoso from my followers attacks my followers (indiscriminately) killing the righteous and the wicked of them, sparing not (even) those staunch in faith and fulfilling not his obligation towards them who have been given a pledge (of security), is not from me.” (Sahih Muslim, 3/4557 & 4555; English ed’n)
Imam al-Bayhaqi (d. 458/1066; Rahimahullah) stated in his: The Seventy-Seven Branches of Faith (pg. 42-3), under the fiftieth branch of faith (50 – Holding firmly to the position of the majority): “God Most High has said: Hold fast, all together, to the rope of God, and do not be disunited. [3:103]. Muslim (Rahimahullah) relates on the authority of Abu Hurayra (Allah be pleased with him) that the Prophet (Peace be upon him) said, ‘Whoever is disobedient, and departs from the majority, and then dies, has died in a state of Jahiliyya.‘ He also relates the following Hadith on the authority of Ibn Shurayh (Allah be pleased with him): ‘After I am gone, there will come days of corruption and turmoil. When you see people damaging the unity of the Community of Muhammad (Peace be upon him), you must fight them, whoever they may happen to be.‘
Abdal Hakim Murad (the translator of the above book) said in the footnote to the fiftieth branch of faith: ‘Orthodoxy in Islam is defined as the doctrine of ahl al-sunna wa’l jama’a, the People of the Sunna and the Community. To know whether a doctrine or practise is orthodox or heretical, the Muslim is required to find out whether it is recognised by the majority of Muslim scholars (see later for Imam al-Munawi’s commentary). Thus even without looking into their theology, he will know that sects such as the Isma’ilis, the Khariji’s, the Wahhabi’s, the Twelver Shi’a and others (not to mention anti-Islamic groupings such as the Ahmadiya and the Bahais) are to be repudiated.'”
(5) Ibn Abbas (Allah be pleased with him) reported the Prophet (Peace be upon him) as saying:
“One who found in his Amir (the ruler of the true Islamic state; which is absent today) something which he disliked should hold his patience, for one who separated from the main body of the Muslims even to the extent of a handspan and then he died, would die the death of one belonging to the days of Jahiliyya.” (Sahih Muslim, 3/4559; English ed’n & Sahih al-Bukhari, 9/257; English ed’n)
(6) Imam’s Ahmad and Abu Dawood (Allah’s mercy be upon them) said that Abu Dharr (Allah be pleased with him) reported the Prophet (Peace be upon him) as saying:
“He who separates from the main body (of the Ummah) by even a hand’s breadth from the Community he throws off Islam from his neck.” (Mishkat-ul-Masabih, 1/185 & Sunan Abu Dawood, 3/4740)
NB-The following five Hadith have been mentioned by the great scholar of Hadith, Hafiz Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Jawzi (d. 597/1201; Rahimahullah) in hisTalbis Iblis (section entitled: Adherence to the Sunnah and Jama’ah). A section of the above work has been translated by Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips in to English, under the title: The Devil’s Deception of the Shee’ah (pp. 4-5). Bilal Philips has put footnotes to the five Hadith that I will be quoting below (to declare some of the Hadith to be Da’eef), but one thing that should be mentioned is that he has mainly relied upon al-Albani’s classification of the Hadiths in question; hence these ‘classifications’ of al-Albani need re-verifying! I say this because it is a well known fact that Hafiz Ibn al-Jawzi was noted for his exceptional stringency in accepting Hadith, and he has been known to have declared some of the Hadith in Bukhari/Muslim to be Da’eef, as well as declaring some sound Hadith to be fabricated! Nevertheless, I would like to make it clear to those readers who are unaware of the status of Bilal Philips, that he has heavily depended on the classifications of al-Albani in most of his books! If the esteemed reader is convinced that the errors of al-Albani are most apparent, then one should beware of the status of those Hadiths that have been used by Bilal Philips (on account of his accepting al-Albani’s classifications). Bilal Philips seems to be a leading critic of Taqleed who has been swept away by the tide of modern day “Salafiyyism”; and it seems that he has ‘blindly’ accepted the classifications of al-Albani without himself reverifying al-Albani’s classifications! I ask you, is this not a clear cut example of Taqleed? If it has been proven that al-Albani’s classifications are unreliable, would it not be just for Bilal Philips to re-verify all the Hadiths that have been authenticated by al-Albani and correct any misclassifications in his books? Allah know’s best.
(7) ‘Umar (Allah be pleased with him) reported that on one occasion Allah’s Messenger (Peace and blessings be upon him) stood up among them and said, “Whoever among you desires the centre of paradise should keep close to the Jama’ah for the Devil closely accompanies the solitary individual and is more distant from two.” (Collected by Imam Tirmidhi)
(8) And ‘Arfajah (Allah be pleased with him) reported (Allah’s Messenger, peace be upon him, as saying): “that Allah’s hand is over the Jama’ah and the Devil is with whoever deviates from the Jama’ah.” (Collected by Imam al-Tabarani)
(9) ‘Abdullah ibn Masood (Allah be pleased with him) reported that once Allah’s Messenger (Peace be upon him) drew a line in the dust with his hand and said, “This is the straight path of Allah.” Then he drew a series of lines to the right of it and to the left and said, “Each of these paths has a devil at its head inviting people to it.” He then recited (Qur’an 6:153), “Verily this is my straight path so follow it and do not follow the (twisted) paths.” (Collected by Ahmad, Nisai and Darimi; see Mishkat ul-Masabih, 1/166)
(10) Mu’adh ibn Jabal (Allah be pleased with him) reported that Allah’s Messenger (Peace be upon him) said, “The Devil is like a wolf among humans as a wolf is among sheep; it snatches the stray sheep. So beware of the paths which branch off and adhere to the Jama’ah, the masses and the masjid.” (Collected by Imam Ahmad; NB- The version given in Mishkat, 1/184, also on the authority of Imam Ahmad does not have the addition ‘the masses and the masjid.’)
(11) And Abu Dharr (Allah be pleased with him) reported from the Prophet (Peace be upon him) that, “Two are better than one, and three better than two; so stick to the Jama’ah for verily Allah, Most Great and Glorious, will only unite my nation on guidance.” (Collected by Ahmad)
(12) Al-Harith al-Ashari (Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him) said:
“I bid you to do five things: to remain attached to the main body (Jama’ah of Muslims), listen to your ruler (the Khalif of the Islamic state) and obey him, and migrate, and fight in the way of Allah. And he who detaches himself from the main body of the Muslims (Jama’ah) to the extent of one span of hand, he in fact, throws off the yoke of Islam from his neck, and he who calls with the call of ignorance, he is one from the denizens of Hell beyond doubt, even if he observes fast and says prayers and considers himself as a Muslim.” (Musnad Ahmad, vide: Selection from Hadith, no. 288; by A.H. Siddique)
(13) Ibn Umar (Allah be pleased with him) reported Allah’s Messenger (Peace be upon him) as saying:
“Follow the great mass (as-Sawad al-Azam) for he who kept himself away from it, in fact would be thrown in Hell Fire.” (Ibn Majah; vide: Mishkat, 1/174, by A.H. Siddiqui).
The translator of Mishkat-ul-Masabih (A.H. Siddiqui, pg. 113) said in the footnote to the last Hadith:
“There is a good deal of difference of opinion as to what the term Sawad al-Azam implies. The overwhelming majority of the scholars are of the view that As-Sawad al-Azam means the largest group of the learned scholars and pious persons whose opinions are held in high esteem in Islam.”
(14) Imam al-Shafi’i (Rahimahullah) said in his Risala (pg. 252-3):
“Sufyan (ibn Uyayna) told us from Abd al-Malik ibn Umayr from Abd al-Rahman ibn Abd Allah ibn Masood from his father, that the Prophet (Peace be upon him) said, `God will grant prosperity to His servant who hears my words, remembers them, guards them, and hands them on. Many a transmitter of law is no lawyer (faqih) himself, and many may transmit law to others who are more versed in the law than they. The heart of a Muslim shall never harbour vindictive feelings against three: sincerity in working for God; faithfulness to Muslims; and conformity to the community of believers (Jama’ah) – their call shall protect (the believers) and guard them from (the Devil’s) delusion.‘” (vide: Sunan al-Darimi, vol. 1, pp. 74-6; Ibn Hanbal, vol. 6, pg. 96; Musnad al-Shafi’i, vol. 1, pg. 16; Mishkat-ul-Masabih, 1/228; and al-Bayhaqi in his al-Madkhal). Imam al-Shafi’i said (pg. 253): “The Apostle’s (Peace be upon him) order that men should follow the Muslim community is a proof that the ijma (consensus) of the Muslims is binding.”
(15) Imam al-Shafi’i (Rahimahullah) stated in al-Risala (pg. 286-7):
“And Sufyan (also) told us from `Abd Allah ibn Abi Labid from `Abd Allah ibn Sulayman ibn Yasar from his father, who said: `Umar ibn al-Khattab (Allah be pleased with him) made a speech at al-Jabiya in which he said: The Apostle of God (Peace be upon him) stood among us by an order from God, as I am now standing among you, and said: Believe my Companions, then those who succeed them (the Successors), and after that those who succeed the Successors; but after them untruthfulness will prevail when people will swear (in support of their saying) without having been asked to swear, and will testify without having been asked to testify. Only those who seek the pleasure of Paradise will follow the community, for the devil can pursue one person, but stands far away from two. Let no man be alone with a woman, for the devil will be third among them. He who is happy with his right (behaviour), or unhappy with his wrong behaviour, is a (true) believer.'” (see also Musnad al-Shafi’i, vol. 2, pg. 187; and Ibn Hanbal, vol. 1, pg. 112-13, 176-81).
Imam al-Shafi’i said in conclusion to this Hadith:
“He who holds what the Muslim community (Jama’ah) holds shall be regarded as following the community, and he who holds differently shall be regarded as opposing the community he was ordered to follow. So the error comes from separation; but in the community as a whole there is no error concerning the meaning of the Qur’an, the Sunnah, and analogy (qiyas).”
(16) Imam Hakim (1/116) has related a Sahih Hadith from the Prophet (Peace be upon him) in the following words: “My Ummah shall not agree upon error.”
(17) Imam al-Tirmidhi (4/2167) reported on the authority of Ibn Umar (Allah be pleased with him) from the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), who said: “Verily my Ummah would not agree (or he said the Ummah of Muhammad) would not agree upon error and Allah’s hand is over the group and whoever dissents from them departs to Hell.” (see also Mishkat, 1/173)
Imam al-Azizi (d. 1070/1660; Rahimahullah) quoted Imam al-Munawi’s (d. 1031/1622; Rahimahullah) commentary to the last Hadith in his al-Siraj al-munir sharh al-Jami al-saghir (3.449), as follows:- Allah’s hand is over the group
(al-Azizi): Munawi says, “Meaning his protection and preservation of them, signifying that the collectivity of the people of Islam are in Allah’s fold, so be also in Allah’s shelter, in the midst of them, and do not separate yourselves from them.” The rest of the Hadith, according to the one who first recorded it (Tirmidhi), is:-
and whoever descents from them departs to hell.
Meaning that whoever diverges from the overwhelming majority concerning what is lawful or unlawful and on which the Community does not differ has slipped off the path of guidance and this will lead him to hell.” (vide: The Reliance of the Traveller, pg. 25)
From Al-Albani Unvelied by Ahmed ibn Muhammad
A defence of the Ash’ari school by one of the foremost scholars of Hadith and Fiqh in Makkah of his time – Shaikh Sayyid Muhammad Alawi al-Maliki al-Makki (RahimAllah).
Shaykh Muhammad ‘Alawi Maliki: “Many sons/daughters of Muslims are ignorant of the Ash’ari School, whom it represents, and its positions on the tenets of the Islamic faith (aqidah), and yet some of them are not God-fearing enough to refrain from accusing it of deviance, departure from the religion of Islam, and heresy about the attributes of Allah. The ignorance of the Ash’ari school is a cause of rendering the unity of the Ahl al-Sunnah dispersing its ranks. Some have gone as far as to consider the Ash’aris among the categories of heretical sects, though it is beyond me how believers can be linked with misbelievers, or how Sunni Muslims can be considered equal with the most extreme faction of the Mu’tazilites, the Jahmites.
“Shall We deal with Muslims as We do criminals? How is it that you judge?” [Qur’an 68:35-36]
The Ash’aris are the Imams of the distinguished figures of guidance among the scholars of the Muslims, whose knowledge has filled the world from east to west, and whom people have unanimously concurred upon their excellence, scholarship, and religiousness. They include the first rank of Sunni scholars and the most brilliant of their luminaries, who stood in the face of the excesses commited by the Mu’tazilites, and who constitute whole sections of the foremost Imams of Hadith, Sacred Law, Quranic exegesis. Shaykh al-Islam Ahmad ibn Hajar ‘Asqalani (d. 852/1449; Rahimullah), the mentor of Hadith scholars and author of the book “Fath al-Bari bi sharh Sahih al-Bukhari“, which not a single Islamic scholar can dispense with, was Ash’ari. The shaykh of the scholars of Sunni Islam, Imam Nawawi (d. 676/1277; Rahimullah), author of “Sharh Sahih Muslim” and many other famous works, was Ash’ari. The master of Qur’anic exegetes, Imam Qurtubi (d. 671/1273; Rahimullah), author of “al-Jami’ li ahkan al-Qur’an“, was Ash’ari. Shaykh al-Islam ibn Hajar Haytami (d. 974/1567; Rahimullah), who wrote “al-Zawajir ‘an iqtiraf al-kaba’ir“, was Ash’ari. The Shaykh of Sacred Law and Hadith, the conclusive definitive Zakariyya Ansari (d. 926/1520; Rahimullah), was Ash’ari. Imam Abu Bakr Baqillani (d. 403/1013; Rahimullah), Imam ‘Asqalani; Imam Nasafi (d. 710/1310; Rahimullah); Imam Shirbini (d. 977/1570; Rahimullah); Abu Hayyan Tawhidi, author of the Qur’anic commentary “al-Bahr al-muhit“; Imam ibn Juzayy (d. 741/1340; Rahimullah); author of “al-Tashil fi ‘ulum al-Tanzil“; and others – all of these were Imams of the Ash’aris. If we wanted to name all of the top scholars of Hadith, Qur’anic exegesis, and Sacred Law who were Imams of the Ash’aris, we would be hard put to do so and would require volumes merely to list these illustrious figures whose wisdom has filled the earth from east to west. And it is incumbent upon us to give credit where credit is due, recognising the merit of those of knowledge and virtue who have served the Sacred Law of the Greatest Messengers (Allah bless him and grant him peace). What good is to be hoped for us if we impugn our foremost scholars and righteous forbearers with charges of aberrancy and misguidance? Or how should Allah give us the benefit of their scholarship if we believe it is deviance and departure from the way of Islam? I ask you, is there a single Islamic scholar of the present day, among all the PhD.’s and geniuses, who has done what Ibn Hajar ‘Asqalani or Imam Nawawi have, of the service rendered by these two noble Imams (May Allah enfold them in His mercy and bliss) to the pure Prophetic Sunnah? How should we charge them and all Ash’aris with abberancy when it is we who are in need of their scholarship? Or how can we take knowledge from them if they were in error? For as Imam Zuhri (d. 124/742; rahimullah) says, “This knowledge is religion, so look well to whom you are taking your religion from.”
Is it not sufficient for someone opposed to the Ash’aris to say, “Allah have mercy on them, they used reasoning (ijtihad) in figuratively interpreting the divine attributes, which it would have been fitter for them not to do”; instead of accusing them of deviance and misguidance, or displaying anger towards whoever considers them to be of the Sunni Community? If Imams Nawawi, ‘Asqalani, Qurtubi, Baqillani, al-Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, Haytami, Zakariyyah Ansari, and many others were not among the most brilliant scholars and illustrious geniuses, or of the Sunni Community, then who are the Sunnis?
I sincerely entreat all who call others to this religion or who work in the field of propagating Islam to fear Allah respecting the honour of the Community of Muhammad (Allah bless him and grant him peace) is possessed of goodness until the Final Hour, we are bereft of any if we fail to acknowledge the worth and excellence of our learned.”
In conclusion, the Ahl al-Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah are the true followers of the Prophet (Peace be upon him) and his Companions (Allah be pleased with them all), followed by by those who trod their path for the last 1400 years. It is in summary the followers of Imam Abu’l Hasan al-Ash’ari (Rahimullah) and Imam Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (Rahimullah) in Aqeedah, and this saved sect is represented by the adherents of one of the four schools – Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali today. This is the sect which has had the largest following throughout Islamic history as-Sawad al-Az’am) as confirmed by the Qur’anic and Ahadith based evidence and it will remain dominant until the Hour is established, inshaAllah.
The Ash‘ari school and Maturidi schools have represented the ‘aqida or “tenets of belief” of the majority of Sunni Muslims for more than a thousand years; just as the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i, and Hanbali schools have represented the shari‘a or “Sacred Law” for the majority of Sunni Muslims for this period. Those against these two traditional schools of tenets of faith are people of bid‘a, defined in a fatwa or formal legal opinion by Imam Ibn Hajar Haytami as “whoever is upon other than the path of Ahl al-Sunna wa l-Jama‘a, Ahl al-Sunna wa l-Jama‘a meaning the followers of Sheikh Abul Hasan Ash‘ari and Abu Mansur Maturidi, the two Imams of Ahl al-Sunna” (Haytami, al-Fatawa al-hadithiyya, 280). In the past, such contraventions, aside from Mu‘tazilites, Shiites, and purely sectarian movements, were confined to a handful of mainly Hanbalis, whose bone of contention with the two traditional schools was that neither had anything to do with their literalist, anthropomorphic understanding of Allah Most High, which they promoted by all means at their disposal.
In answer to your question, the claims that Imam Abul Hasan Ash‘ari (d. 324/936) repudiated his own positions are not new, but have been circulated by these Hanbalis for a long time, a fact that compelled the hadith master (hafiz) Ibn ‘Asakir to carefully investigate this question, and thesanads (chains of narrators) for the attribution of these repudiations to Ash‘ari. The results of his research furnished probably the best intellectual biography of Ash‘ari ever done, a book that rebuts these claims thoroughly and uniquivocally, called Tabyin kadhib al-muftari fi ma nusiba ila al-Imam al-Ash‘ari [On showing the untruth of the liars, concerning what has been ascribed to Imam Ash‘ari], that proves that there are liars in all thesanads that impute this to Imam Ash‘ari. The book is in print, and whoever would like the details should read it.
Imam Ash‘ari’s al-Ibana ‘an usul al-diyana [The clarification of the bases of the religion] was not his last book, but rather among the first after he broke with Mu‘tazilism. Imam Kawthari states:
The Ibana was authored at the first of his return from Mu‘tazilite thought, and was by way of trying to induce [n: the Hanbali literalist] Barbahari (d. 328/940) to embrace the tenets of faith of Ahl al-Sunna. Whoever believes it to be the last of his books believes something that is patently false. Moreover, pen after pen of the anthropomorphists has had free disposal of the text—particularly after the strife (fitna) that took place in Baghdad [n: after A.H. 323, when Hanbalis (“the disciples of Barbahari”) gained the upper hand in Baghdad, Muslims of the Shafi‘i madhhab were beaten, and anthropomorphism became the faith (‘aqida) of the day (Ibn Athir:al-Kamal fi al-tarikh, 7.114)]—so that what is in the work that contradicts the explicit positions transmitted from Ash‘ari by his own disciples, and their disciples, cannot be relied upon (al-Sayf al-saqil, 108).
This is borne out by hadith master (hafiz) Dhahabi in his Siyar a‘lam al-nubala’ (15.90), as well as Ibn ‘Asakir’s Tabyin kadhib al-muftari. As for seeing dreams, dreams may warm the heart, but they are not a proof for either Islamic law or tenets of faith. In his introduction to Ibn ‘Asakir’s work, Kawthari notes that “the anthropomorphists are the ones who seem to need this [relating of dreams]: when unable to prove their point while awake, they go to sleep, to find the proofs they are looking for while asleep, to fill their books with them” (Tabyin kadhib al-muftari (21–22).
In relation to your questions in general, it is noteworthy that Saudi Arabia has printed and distributed worldwide thousands of copies of a Salafi book called Manhaj al-Asha‘ira fi al-‘aqida [The methodology of the Ash‘aris in tenets of faith] by one Safar Hawali, a professor at Umm al-Qura University in Mecca. It ascribes to the Ash‘ari school the misrepresentations typical of that part of the world, identifying the school with the positions of heretical sects like the Jahmiyya, the Qadriyya, Murjiites, and so on, and contains a number of the things you asked about the Ash‘aris, so I would guess this is the misinformation that your English Salafis are going upon. One can find the details in Hasan Saqqaf’s recent rebuttal of the work entitled Tahni’a al-sadiq al-mahbub, wa nayl al-surur al-matlub, bi maghazala Safar al-maghlub [The greeting of the beloved friend, and attainment of happiness sought, in affectionate discourse with Safar the defeated]. I have heard that Hawali has since moved on from his positions, though I do not know the details.
Saqqaf also talks in his work about the bogus Hanbali “repentances” of various Ash‘ari Imams such as Ash‘ari, Juwayni, and Ghazali, that don’t appear in their books but have rather reached us by sanads each containing an anti-Ash‘ari or two, as is also corroborated by Ibn Subki in hisTabaqat al-Shafi‘iyya al-kubra [The greater compendium of the successive generations of Shafi‘i scholars] under the biographical entries on each of these scholars.
From the wider perspective of Islamic law, these forgeries are rather meaningless, since a Muslim may not believe in the Islamic faith (‘aqida) of Ahl al-Sunna merely because his Imam has said it, but rather because he sincerely believes it is the truth. Scholars say that it is not legally valid to follow qualified scholarship (taqlid) in tenets of Islamic faith (as opposed to rulings of Islamic law) unless one has full conviction of these tenets of faith from one’s own heart—which is why they tell us that one’s faith (iman) by taqlid in such tenets is only legally valid on condition that if one’s Imam were to cease believing something of them, one would not. So the forgeries would seem to have little scholarly relevance, other than to show the lengths to which their perpetrators were willing to go.
Few would deny today that the millions of dollars spent worldwide on religious books, teachers, and schools in the last thirty years by oil-rich governments have brought about a sea change in the way Muslims view Islam. In whole regions of the Islamic world and Western countries where Muslims live, what was called Wahhabism in earlier times and termed Salafism in our own has supplanted much of traditional Islamic faith and practice. The very name Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama‘a or “Sunni orthodoxy and consensus” has been so completely derailed in our times that few Muslims even know it is rolling down another track. In most countries, Salafism is the new “default Islam,” defining all religious discourse, past and present, by the understanding of a few Hanbali scholars of the Middle Ages whose works historically affected the tribes and lands where the most oil has been found. Among the more prominent casualties of this “reform” are the Hanbalis’ ancient foes, the Ash‘ari and Maturidi schools of Sunni theology whom I have been asked to speak about tonight.
For over a thousand years Ash‘ari-Maturidi theology has defined Sunni orthodoxy. When I visited al-Azhar in Cairo in 1990 and requested for my library the entire syllabus of religious textbooks taught by Azhar High Schools in Egypt, one of the books I was given was a manual on Islamic sects, whose final section defined Ahl al-Sunna as “the Ash‘aris, followers of Abul Hasan al-Ash‘ari, and the Maturidis, followers of Abu Mansur al-Maturidi” (Mudhakkara al-firaq (c00), 14).
This is not an isolated assessment. When the Imam of the late Shafi‘i school Ibn Hajr al-Haytami was asked for a fatwa identifying as-hab al-bida‘ or heretics, he answered that they were “those who contravene Muslim orthodoxy and consensus (Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama‘a): the followers of Sheikh Abul Hasan al-Ash‘ari and Abu Mansur al-Maturidi, the two Imams of Ahl al-Sunna” (al-Fatawa al-hadithiyya (c00), 280).
Few Muslims today know anything about the Ash‘ari and Maturidi schools or their relation to Islam. So I shall discuss their theology not as history, but as orthodoxy, answering the most basic questions about them such as: What are the beliefs of Sunni Islam? Who needs rational theology anyway? And what relevance does it have today? We mention only enough history to understand what brought it into being, what it said, what it developed into, what its critics said of it, and what the future may hold for it.
Islamic theology is based on an ethical rather than speculative imperative. Many Qur’anic verses and hadiths show that iman or “true faith” is obligatory and rewarded by paradise, and that kufr or “unbelief” is wrong and punished by hell. Every Muslim must know certain matters of faith, be convinced of them himself, and not merely imitate others who believe in them. The faith God requires of man is expressed in the words
“The Messenger believes in what has been revealed to him from his Lord, as do the believers. Each believes in Allah, His angels, His books, and His messengers. We do not differentiate between any of His messengers, and they say: We hear and obey, O Lord grant us Your forgiveness, and unto You is the final becoming” (Qur’an 2:285).
This verse defines the believer as someone who believes in the Prophet’s revelation (Allah bless him and give him peace) in general and in detail. The details have to be known to be believed, for as Allah says,
“Allah does not tax any soul except in its capacity” (Qur’an 2:286),
and it is not in one’s capacity to believe something unless it is both known to one and not unbelievable, meaning not absurd or self-contradictory.
Moreover, “belief” means holding something to be true, not merely believing what one’s forefathers or group believe, such that if they handed down something else, one would believe that instead. That is, “belief” by blind imitation without reference to truth or falsity is not belief at all. Allah specifically condemns those who reject the message of Islam for this reason, by saying:
“When they are told: ‘Come to what Allah has revealed, and to the Messenger,’ they say, ‘It suffices us what we found our forefathers upon’—But what if their forefathers knew nothing, and were not guided?” Qur’an 5:104).
In short, Islamic kalam theology exists because belief in Islam demands three things:
(1) to define the contents of faith;
(2) to show that it is possible for the mind to accept, not absurd or inconsistent;
(3) and to give reasons to be personally convinced of it.
“Very well,” one may say, “these are valid aims, but what proof is there that rational argument, the specific means adopted by traditional theology, is valid or acceptable in matters of faith?”— to which the first answer is that the Qur’an itself uses rational argument; while the second is that nothing else would have met the historical threat to Islam of Jahm and the Mu‘tazila, the aberrant schools who were obligatory for Ash‘ari and Maturidi to defeat.
The Qur’anic proof is the verse
“Allah has not begotten a son, nor is there any god besides Him, for otherwise, each would have taken what they created and overcome the other—how exalted is Allah above what they describe!” (Qur’an 23:91),
whose premises and conclusion are: (a) a “god” means a being with an omnipotent will; (b) the omnipotent will of more than one such being would impose a limit on the omnipotence of the other, which is absurd; (c) God is therefore one, and has not begotten a son, nor is there any god besides Him.
A second proof is in the Qur’anic verse
“Were there other gods in [the heavens and earth] besides Allah, [the heavens and earth] would have come to ruin” (Qur’an 21:22),
whose argument may be summarized as: (a) a “god” means a being with an omnipotent will, to whom everything in the universe is thus subject; (b) if the universe were subject to a number of omnipotent gods, its fabric would be disrupted by the exercise of their several wills, while no such disruption is evident in the universe; (c) God is therefore one, and there are no other gods.
The historical proof for rational argument—unmentioned in kalam literature but perhaps even more cogent than either of the Qur’anic proofs just mentioned—is that nothing else could meet the crisis that Ash‘ari and Maturidi faced; namely, the heretical mistakes of the two early proto-schools of ‘aqida, the Jahmiyya and the Mu‘tazila. We say “nothing else” because a chess player cannot be defeated by playing checkers, and the only way to refute the arguments of the Jahmiyya and of the Mu‘tazila was by intellectual means. Mere political suppression would have but hardened their party spirit into sectarian obstinacy, so it was necessary to defeat them with rational argument.
The challenge facing Abul Hasan al-Ash‘ari and Abu Mansur al-Maturidi was thus threefold: (1) to define the tenets of faith of Islam and refute innovation; (2) to show that this faith was acceptable to the mind and not absurd or inconsistent; and (3) to give proofs that personally convinced the believer of it. Though not originally obligatory itself, kalam became so when these aims could not be accomplished for the Muslim polity without it, in view of the Islamic legal principle that “whatever the obligatory cannot be accomplished without is itself obligatory.” As we have seen, the specific form of the response, rational argument, was used by the Qur’an, mandated by human reason, and necessitated by history. We now turn to the concrete form of the response, which was the traditional tenets of faith (‘aqida) of the two schools, after which we will look at how the response was conditioned by their historical predecessors, the Jahmiyya and Mu‘tazila schools.
The heart of traditional kalam theology is that—after the shahada “there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah,” and after acknowledging Allah’s infinite perfections and transcendence above any imperfection—it is obligatory for every Muslim to know what is (a) necessarily true, (b) impossible, or (c) possible to affirm of both Allah and the prophets (upon whom be peace). These three categories traditionally subsume some fifty tenets of faith.
(a) The twenty attributes necessarily true of Allah are His (1) existence; (2) not beginning; (3) not ending; (4) self-subsistence, meaning not needing any place or determinant to exist; (5) dissimilarity to created things; (6) uniqueness, meaning having no partner (sharik) in His entity, attributes, or actions; (7) omnipotent power; (8) will; (9) knowledge; (10) life; (11) hearing; (12) sight; (13) speech; such that He is (14) almighty; (15) all-willing; (16) all-knowing; (17) living; (18) all-hearing; (19) all-seeing; (20) and speaking—through His attributes of power, will, knowledge, life, hearing, sight, and speech, not merely through His being.
(b) The twenty attributes necessarily impossible of Allah (21–40) are the opposites of the previous twenty, such as nonexistence, beginning, ending, and so on.
(c) The one attribute merely possible of Allah (41) is that He may create or destroy any possible thing.
The attributes of the prophets (upon whom be peace) similarly fall under the three headings:
(a) The four attributes necessarily true of the prophets (42–45) are telling the truth, keeping their trust, conveying to mankind everything they were ordered to, and intelligence.
(b) The four attributes necessarily impossible of them (46–49) are the opposites of the previous four, namely lying, treachery, concealing what they were ordered to reveal, and feeblemindedness .
(c) The one attribute possible of them (50) is any human state that does not detract from their rank, such as eating, sleeping, marrying, and illnesses not repellant to others; although Allah protected them from every offensive physical trait and everything unbecoming them, keeping them from both lesser sins and enormities, before their prophethood and thereafter.
When one reflects on these fifty fundamental tenets of faith, which students memorized over the centuries, it is not difficult to understand why Ash‘ari-Maturidi kalam was identified with Islamic orthodoxy for over a millennium; namely, they are the tenets of the Qur’an and sunna.
We find however in the history of kalam that authors sometimes urged the distinctive doctrines of their school, particularly against opponents, as if they were basic principles of Islam. Now, “basic principles” are what every Muslim must know and believe as a Muslim, while “distinctive doctrines” may include virtually any point that controversy has brought into prominence. The two are not necessarily the same.
A number of points of ‘aqida were not originally central to the faith of Islam, but entered the canon of “orthodoxy” by celebrity acquired through debate among schools. To take but one point for example: the question of “whether man is obligated to know God by revelation or whether by human reason alone” has been treated by Ahl al-Sunna, Mu‘tazila, and Jahmiyya theologians as a point of ‘aqida, though it does not personally concern one single Muslim—for all Muslims know Allah through the revelation of the Qur’an—but rather concerns Allah’s own judgement of human beings who have never been reached by the Islamic revelation, a judgement Allah is unlikely to consult anyone else about, whether believer or unbeliever. Something so devoid of practical consequences for Muslims could not have become prominent except through faction and debate.
Treating distinctive doctrines as basic tenets of faith, however, was not always the result of mere controversy, but because Sunni theologians had to distinguish truth from falsehood, the latter including the many mistakes of the Mu‘tazila and Jahmiyya. All falsehoods are rejected by Islam, and in matters of faith most are serious sins, but some are more crucial than others. In other words, in the spectrum from right to wrong beliefs, there are four main categories:
(1) central beliefs that one must hold or one is not a Muslim;
(2) beliefs that are obligatory to hold, but denying them does not make one a non-Muslim;
(3) beliefs that are unlawful to hold, but affirming them does not make one a non-Muslim;
(4) and beliefs that no one can hold and remain a Muslim.
For many Muslims today, greater knowledge of these four necessary distinctions would bring about greater tolerance, and teachers of Islamic theology must explain that while “orthodoxy” reflects what Sunnis believe, only some of their issues spell the difference between faith and unbelief, while others are things that Muslims may disagree about and still remain Muslim.
To say it again, a particular point of ‘aqida could be contrary to another, even heretical school of thought and hotly debated, yet not directly concern kufr or iman, faith or unfaith. Indeed, the longer and harder the historical debate, the less likely the point under discussion is a matter of salvation or damnation, for it is inconsistent with Allah’s mercy and justice to create men of widely varying intelligence and then make their salvation depend on something that even the most brilliant of them cannot agree upon. Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606/1210) acknowledges this by writing:
One should know that theologians have had considerable difficulty defining kufr (unbelief). . . Kufr consists in denying the truth of anything the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) is necessarily known to have said. Examples include denying the Creator’s existence, His knowledge, power, choice, oneness, or perfection above all deficiencies and infirmities. Or denying the prophethood of Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace), the truth of the Qur’an, or denying any law necessarily known to be of the religion of Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace), such as the obligatoriness of prayer, of zakat, fasting, or pilgrimage, or the unlawfulness of usury or wine. Whoever does so is an unbeliever because he has disbelieved the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) about something necessarily known to be of his religion.
As for what is only known by inference from proof to be his religion, such as “whether God knows by virtue of His attribute of knowledge or rather by virtue of His entity,” or “whether or not He may be seen [in the next life],” or “whether or not He creates the actions of His servants”; we do not know by incontestably numerous chains of transmission (tawatur) that any of these alternatives has been affirmed by the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) instead of the other. For each, the truth of one and falsity of the other is known only through inference, so neither denial nor affirmation of it can enter into actual faith, and hence cannot entail unbelief.
The proof of this is that if such points were part of faith, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) would not have judged anyone a believer until he was sure that the person knew the question. Had he done such a thing, his position on the question would have been known to everyone in Islam and conveyed by many chains of transmission. Because it has not, it is clear that he did not make it a condition of faith, so knowing it is not a point of belief, nor denying it unbelief.
In light of which, no one of this Umma is an unbeliever, and we do not consider anyone an unbeliever whose words are interpretable as meaning anything besides. As for beliefs not known except through hadiths related by a single narrator, it seems plain that they cannot be a decisive criterion for belief or unbelief. That is our view about the reality of unbelief (Mafatih al-ghayb (c00), 2.42).
Such breadth of perspective was not unique to Razi, the lifelong defender of Ahl al-Sunna ‘aqida and implacable foe of its opponents, but was also the view of Imam Ash‘ari himself. Dhahabi says:
Bayhaqi relates that he heard Abu Hazim al-‘Abdawi say that he heard Zahir ibn Ahmad al-Sarkhasi say, “When death came to Abul Hasan al-Ash‘ari in my home in Baghdad, he called me to him and I came, and he said, ‘Be my witness: I do not declare anyone an unbeliever who prays towards the qibla, for all direct themselves to the One whom alone is worshipped, while all this [controversy] is but different ways of speaking” (Siyar al-a‘lam (c00), 15.88).
These passages show that both Ash‘ari and Razi, the early and late Imams of their school, implicitly distinguished between the central‘aqida of Islam, and the logical elaboration upon it by traditional theology. Clearly, their life work brought them to the understanding thatkalam theology had produced a body of knowledge that was, if important and true, nevertheless distinct from the ‘aqida that is obligatory for every Muslim to believe in order to be Muslim. The difference however, between ‘aqida or “personal theology,” and kalam or “discursive theology” was perhaps most strikingly delineated by Imam Ghazali (d. 505/1111).
According to Ghazali, kalam theology could not be identified with the ‘aqida of Islam itself, but rather was what protected it from heresy and change. He wrote about his long experience in studying kalam in a number of places in his Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din, one of them just after his beautiful ‘Aqida al-Qudsiyya or “Jerusalem Creed.” After mentioning the words of Imam Shafi‘i, Malik, Ahmad, and Sufyan al-Thawri thatkalam theology is unlawful—by which they meant the Mu‘tazilite school of their times, the only example they knew of—Ghazali gives his own opinion on discursive theology, saying:
There is benefit and harm in it. As to its benefit, it is lawful or recommended or obligatory whenever it is beneficial, according to the circumstances. As to its harm, it is unlawful whenever and for whomever it is harmful.
Its harm is that it raises doubts in minds and shakes a student’s tenets of faith from certitude and conviction at the outset, while there is no guarantee that he will ever get it back again through proofs, individuals varying in this. That is its harm to faith.
It has another bad effect, namely that it hardens heretics’ attachment to their heresy and makes it firmer in their hearts by stirring them up and increasing their resolve to persist. This harm, however, comes about through bigotry born of argument, which is why you see the ordinary unlearned heretic fairly easy to dissuade from his mistakes through affability; though not if he has grown up in a locale where there is arguing and bigotry, in which case if all mankind from beginning to end were to join together, they would be unable to rid his heart of wrong ideas. Rather, his prejudice, his heatedness, and his loathing for his opponents and their group has such a grip over his heart and so blinds him to the truth that if he were asked, “Would you like Allah Most High Himself to raise the veil so you can see with your own eyes that your opponent is right?” he would refuse, lest it please his opponent. This is the incurable disease that plagues cities and people: the sort of vice produced by bigotry when there is argument. This also is of the harm of kalam.
As for its benefit, it might be supposed that it is to reveal truths and know them as they truly are. And how farfetched! Kalam theology is simply unable to fulfill this noble aim, and it probably founders and misguides more than it discovers or reveals. If you had heard these words from a hadith scholar or literalist, you might think, “People are enemies of what they are ignorant of.” So hear them instead from someone steeped in kalam theology, who left it after mastering it in depth and penetrating into it as far as any scholar can, and who then went on to specialize in closely related fields, before realizing that access to the realities of true knowledge was barred from this path. By my life, theology is not bereft of revealing and defining the truth and clarifying some issues, but it does so rarely, and about things that are already clear and almost plain before learning its details.
Rather, it has one single benefit, namely guarding the ordinary man’s faith we have just outlined [the Jerusalem Creed] and defending it by argument from being shaken by those who would change it with heresies. For the common man is weak and susceptible to the arguments of heretics even when false; and the false may be rebutted by something not in itself especially good; while people are only responsible for the creed we have presented above (Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din (c00), 1.86).
In this and other passages of Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din, al-Munqidh min al-dalal, and Faysal al-tafriqa which summarize his life experience withkalam theology, Ghazali distinguishes between several things. The first is ‘ilm al-‘aqa’id or the knowledge of basic tenets of faith, which we have called above “personal theology,” and which he deems beneficial.The second is what we have called “discursive theology,” or kalamproperly speaking, the use of rational arguments to defeat heretics who would confuse common people about tenets of faith. Ghazali believes this is valid and obligatory, but only to the extent needed. The third we may call “speculative theology,” which is philosophical reasoning from first principles about God, man, and being, to discover by deduction and inference the way things really are. This Ghazali regards as impossible for kalam to do.
The scholars of kalam certainly did not agree with Ghazali on this latter point, and history attests to their continued confidence in it as a medium of discovery, producing what has subsequently been regarded by almost everyone as a period of excess in kalam literature. Taj al-Din al-Subki (d. 771/1370) who was himself steeped in kalam theology wrote:
Upon reflection—and no one can tell you like someone who truly knows—I have not found anything more harmful to those of our times or more ruinous to their faith than reading books of kalam written by latter-day scholars after Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and others. If they confined themselves instead to the works of the Qadi Abu Bakr al-Baqillani, the great Abu Ishaq al-Isfarayini, the Imam of the Two Sanctuaries Abu al-Ma‘ali al-Juwayni, and others of those times, they would have nothing but benefit. But truly I believe that whoever ignores the Qur’an and sunna [defended by these scholars] and instead occupies himself with the debates of Ibn Sina and those of his path—leaving the words of the Muslims: “Abu Bakr and ‘Umar (Allah Most High be well pleased with them) said,” “Shafi‘i said,” “Abu Hanifa said,” “Ash‘ari said,” “Qadi Abu Bakr said”; and instead saying: “The Sovereign Sage (al-Shaykh al-Ra’is) said” meaning Ibn Sina, or “The Great Master (al-Khawaja) Nasir said,” and so on—that whoever does so should be whipped and paraded through the marketplaces with a crier proclaiming: “This is the punishment of whoever leaves the Qur’an and sunna and busies himself with the words of heretics” (Mu‘id al-ni‘am (c00), 79–80).
For Subki, it showed how far kalam had strayed for latter-day authors to call heterodox figures such as Ibn Sina or Tusi “Sovereign Sage” or “Great Master” in works supposedly explaining the faith of Islam. The reason he found nothing “more harmful to those of our times or more ruinous to their faith than reading the books of kalam theology written by latter-day scholars” was that they had vitiated the very reason for kalam’sexistence: to defend the truth. By widening its universe to include heretics and giving them titles of authority,kalam literature had become a compendium of wrong ideas.
To summarize, although Sunni theology first defined orthodoxy and rebutted heresy, it afterwards swelled with speculative excesses that hearkened back those of the Jahmiyya and Mu‘tazila. At this juncture, it met with criticism from figures who knew it too well to accept this, such as Imam Ghazali, Taj al-Subki, Nawawi, and others, whose view was that kalam was a medicine useful in moderation, but harmful in overdose. Their criticisms were valid, for when theology obeys a speculative rather than an ethical imperative, it ceases to give guidance in man’s relationship to God, and hence is no longer a science of the din.
What has been forgotten today however by critics who would use the words of earlier Imams to condemn all kalam, is that these criticisms were directed against its having become “speculative theology” at the hands of latter-day authors. Whoever believes they were directed against the ‘aqida or “personal theology” of basic tenets of faith, or the “discursive theology” of rational kalam arguments against heresy is someone who either does not understand the critics or else is quoting them disingenuously.
We conclude our remarks with a glance at kalam’s significance today. What does traditional theology have to offer contemporary Muslims ?
With universal comparison, the door today is open to universal skepticism, not only about particular religions, but belief in God and in religion itself. It is hence appropriate to consider the legacy of kalam proofs for the existence of God.
At the practical level, most people who believe in God do not do so because of philosophical arguments, but because they feel a presence, inwardly and outwardly, that uplifts hearts, answers prayers, and solves their problems. Yet Muslims and others find their faith increasingly challenged by an atheistic modern world. The question becomes, can traditional kalam arguments answer modern misgivings?
Now, philosophy as taught today in many places dismisses traditional proofs for the existence of God as tautological, saying that they smuggle in the conclusions they reach by embedding them in the premises. A young American Muslim philosophy student asked me, “How can we believe with certainty that there is a God, when logically speaking there is no argument without holes in it?” He mentioned among the arguments of kalam that (a) the world is hadith or “contingent”; (b) everything contingent requires a muhdith or “cause”; (c) if there is no first cause that is “necessary” or uncaused, this entails an infinite regress, which is absurd; and (d) therefore the world must ultimately have an uncaused or ‘necessary’ cause as its origin.
While scholars like Majid Fakhry in his History of Islamic Philosophy point out that saying that “the ‘contingent’ (hadith) requires a ‘cause’ (muhdith)” is a mere play on words, one can answer that while the form of this argument does contain a play on words, if we penetrate to the content of these words, they express an empirical relationship so basic to our experience that science regards it as axiomatic. That is, to provide a scientific explanation for something is to suggest a probable cause for it, and then present evidence for the particular cause being adduced as its “explanation.”
In cosmology, for example, the origin of the universe must be explained causally, and most scientists currently believe that the universe began about fifteen billion years ago in a cosmic cataclysm they term the Big Bang. And yet this most interesting of all events, indeed the effective cause of all of them, is somehow exempted from the scientific dictum that to explain something is to suggest a cause for it. Why the Big Bang? What urged its being rather than its nonbeing? This is no trivial enigma, still less a play on words. If to explain an event is to find a cause for it, then the Big Bang is not an scientific “explanation” for the origin of the universe in any ordinary sense of the word. Here, thekalam argument that the contingent must return to the necessary is still relevant today, and has been cited by name in works such as Craig and Smith’s Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology. The prevailing cosmological view among scientists is that the universe did have a beginning, and this requires an explanation.
Another traditional kalam argument vitally relevant to the teaching of Islam is the “argument from design,” namely that the complexity of many natural phenomena is far more analogous to our own intentionally planned processes and productions than to ordinary random events. That is, the perfection of design in nature argues for the existence of a designer. As in the previous example, to teach this argument directly from kalam would seem to many intellectual Muslims today, particularly those scientifically literate, to be a mere tautology or play on words. But when filled in with examples drawn from scientific literature, its cogency becomes plain.
Examples abound. One of them forms the central thesis of the work Just Six Numbers by the British Astronomer Royal Martin Reese of Cambridge. He has determined that the fabric of the universe depends on the coincidence of six basic physical number ratios, two of them related to basic forces, two fixing the size and texture of the universe, and two fixing the properties of space itself. These six numbers, in Reese’s own words, “constitute a ‘recipe’ for a universe. Moreover, the outcome is sensitive to their values: if any of them were to be untuned [the slightest bit different in numerical value], there would be no stars and no life” (Just Six Numbers (c00), 4). If any of these six numbers were dependent on the others, the fact that they allow for the existence of the universe would be less astonishing, but none of them can be predicted from the values of the others, and each number compounds the unlikelihood of the others. The only consequence mathematically inferable from this is that the universe that we know and live in is unlikely to an absurd degree. The statistical probability of the confluence of just these numbers is, to borrow the expression of astronomer Hugh Ross, about as likely as “the possibility of a Boeing 747 aircraft being completely assembled as a result of a tornado striking a junkyard” (Discover (c00), 21, no. 11).
The shocking improbability of ourselves and our universe is no play on words, and shows the relevance of the kalam argument for the existence of God from design.
Another example of the argument from design is the origin of life, especially with what is known today, after the advent of the electron microscope, about the tens of thousands of interdependent parts that compose even the simplest one-celled organism known. The probability of such an entity not only assembling itself, but also simultaneously assembling a viable reproductive apparatus to produce another equally complex living reality does not urge itself very strongly according to anything we know about empirical reality. That is, the origin of perfectly articulated functional complexity argues for a design, and a design argues for the existence of a designer.
A third example of the relevance of the argument from design is what physicist Paul Davies has called in his Mind of God “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” in describing and predicting the phenomena of the physical world. The “unreasonableness” in it is that if, as scientism avers, the structure of our brains that determines the way we view reality is only an evolutionary accident, which would presumably be much different if we were, say, a race of aliens who had evolved on different planet, why is it that so much of the mathematics that was first worked out as an abstract exercise in the minds of pure mathematicians has been so spectacularly effective in explaining the physical world? If man were hundreds of times larger than he is or hundreds of times smaller, his perceptual reality would be so completely different that he might well not have developed the integers or other mathematical tools that he did. But because man has turned out just so, by an uncannily improbable coincidence, the mathematical rules formulated by pure mathematicians—which should be a mere accident of man’s evolutionary and cultural history—turn out, often years after their discovery, to be exactly the same rules nature is playing by.
The enigma here is that, while there is a distinct evolutionary advantage in knowing the world by direct empirical observation, we have been equipped with a second faculty, of no selective evolutionary advantage at all, which can incorporate quantum and relativistic mathematical systems into our mental model of the world. For Davies these facts suggest that a conscious Being has encoded this ability within humanity, knowing that one day they would reach a degree of comprehension of the universe that will bring them to the realization that the unreasonable correspondence of nature to pure thought is not a coincidence, but the outcome of a great design.
There are many other examples of the argument from design, particularly in the complexity of symbiotic and parasitic relationships between species of the natural world, which, if too long to detail here, also strongly attest to the relevance of the kalam argument for the existence of God.
As for the role of kalam in defending Islam from heresies, Jahm and the Mu‘tazilites are certainly less of threat to orthodoxy today thanscientism, the reduction of all truth to statements about quantities and empirical facts. The real challenge to religion today is the mythic power of science to theologize its experimental method, and imply that since it has not discovered God, He must not exist.
Here, the task of critique cannot be relegated to traditional proofs drawn from the literature of a prescientific age. Rather, it belongs to scientifically literate Muslims today to clarify the provisional nature of the logic of science, and to show how its epistemology, values, and historical and cultural moment condition the very nature of questions it can ask—or answer.
Omniscience is not a property of science. In physics today, at the outset of the twenty-first century, we do not yet understand what gives physical matter its mass, its most basic property. In taxonomy, estimates vary, but probably less than 3 percent of the living organisms on our own planet have been named or identified. In human fertility, many fundamental mechanisms remain undiscovered. Even our most familiar companion, human consciousness, has not been scientifically explained, replicated, or reduced to physical laws. In short, though we do not base our faith on the current state of science, we should realize that if science has not discovered God, there is a long list of other things it has not discovered that we would be ill-advised to consider nonexistent in consequence.
In short, attacks today on religion by scientism should be met by Muslims as Ash‘ari and Maturidi met the Mu‘tazilites and Jahmites in their times: with a dialectic critique of the premises and conclusions thoroughly grounded in their own terms. The names that come to mind in our day are not Ash‘ari, Baqillani, and Razi, but rather those like Huston Smith in his Beyond the Post-Modern Mind, Charles Le Gai Eaton in his King of the Castle, Keith Ward in his God, Chance, and Necessity, and even non-religious writers like Paul Davies in The Mind of God and John Horgan in his The End of Science and The Undiscovered Mind. Answering reductionist attacks on religion is a communal obligation, which Muslims can only ignore at their peril. This too is of the legacy of kalam, or the “aptness of words to answer words.”
A final benefit of kalam is to realize from its history that there is some range and latitude in the beliefs of one’s fellow Muslims. In an Islamic world growing ever younger with the burgeoning population, there is a danger that those quoting Qur’anic verses and hadiths without a grasp of the historical issues will stir up the hearts of young Muslims against each other in sectarian strife. People like to belong to groups, and the positive benefits of bonding with others in a group may be offset by bad attitudes towards those outside the group. The Wahhabi movement for example, recast in our times as Salafism, began as a Kharijite-like sect that regarded nonmembers, including most of the Umma, as kafirs or unbelievers. Here, a working knowledge of the history and variety of schools of Islamic theology would do much to promote tolerance.
The figures we have cited, from Ash‘ari to Razi to Dhahabi to Ibn Taymiya, were men who passionately believed that there was a truth to be known, and that it represented the beliefs of Islam, and that it was but one. They believed that those who disagreed with it were wrong and should be engaged and rebutted. But they did not consider anyone who called himself a Muslim to be a kafir as long as his positions did not flatly deny the truthfulness of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). Imam Ghazali says in Faysal al-tafriqa:
“Unbelief” (kufr) consists in asserting that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) lied about anything he conveyed, while “faith” is believing that he told the truth in everything he said (Faysal al-tafriqa (c00), 78).
There is wide scholarly consensus on this tolerance of Islam, and we have heard from Imam Ash‘ari that he did not consider anyone who prayed towards the qibla to be an unbeliever, from Razi that he did not consider anyone to be an unbeliever whose words could possibly mean anything besides, and from Ibn Taymiya that he considered everyone who faithfully prays with ablution to be a believer. None of them believed that a Muslim can go to hell on a technicality.
To summarize everything we have said, the three main tasks of kalam consist in defining the contents of faith, showing that it contradicts neither logic nor experience, and providing grounds to be personally convinced of it, and these three are as relevant today as ever.
First, the substantive knowledge of the ‘aqida each of us will die and meet Allah upon will remain a lasting benefit as long as there are Muslims.
Second, demographers expect mankind to attain close to universal literacy within fifty years. Members of world faiths may be expected to question their religious beliefs for coherence, logicality, applicability, and adequacy, and the work of Ahl al-Sunna scholars will go far to show that one does not have to hang up one’s mind to enter Islam.
Third, universal communication will make comparisons between religions inevitable. Blind imitation of ethnic religious affiliation will become less relevant to people around the globe, and I personally believe Islam has stronger theological arguments for its truth than other world religions. Indeed, Islam is a sapiential religion, in which salvation itself rests not on vicarious atonement as in Christianity, or on ethnic origin as in Judaism, but on personal knowledge. Whoever knows that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God is by that very fact saved.
So in the coming century, three areas of kalam’s legacy will remain especially relevant for Muslims: first, the proofs for the existence of God from necessity and design, second, the rebuttal of the heresy of scientistic reductionism and atheism, and third, promoting tolerance among Muslims. The latter is one of the most important lessons that the history of kalam can teach; that if Muslims cannot expect to agree on everything in matters of faith, they can at least agree on the broad essentials, and not to let their differences descend from their heads to their hearts.
MMV © N. Keller
(The above is the text of a talk given to the Aal al-Bayt Institute of Islamic Thought on 4 January 2005 in Amman, Jordan.)
 Dhahabi goes on: “This is my own religious view. So too, our sheikh Ibn Taymiya used to say in his last days, ‘I do not consider anyone of this Umma an unbeliever,’ and he would relate that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, ‘No one but a believer faithfully performs ablution’ [Ahmad ((c00), 5.82: 22433. S], saying, ‘So whoever regularly attends prayers with ablution is a Muslim’” (Siyar al-a‘lam (c00), 15.88).
 The “Great Master” Nasir al-Din al-Tusi was the traitor who betrayed Baghdad and its whole populace to their Mongol slaughterers out of sectarian malice against the Sunni caliphate. In tenets of faith, he introduced philosophy into Shiism, reviving Ibn Sina’s thought in a Twelver Shiite matrix, and authored Tajrid al-‘aqa’id, the preeminent work of Shiite dogma to this day, in which he describes man as “the creator of his works” (Encyclopedia of Religion (c00), 6.324, 7.316, 13.265)—while the Qur’an tells us that “Allah created you and what you do” (Qur’an 37:96).
 The Associated Press on Thursday 9 December 2004 carried the story “Famous Atheist Now Believes in God,” in which religion writer Richard Ostling mentions that a British philosophy professor who has been a leading champion of atheism for more than a half-century has now changed his mind. “At age 81, after decades of insisting belief is a mistake, Antony Flew has concluded that some sort of intelligence or first cause must have created the universe. ‘A super-intelligence is the only good explanation for the origin of life and the complexity of nature,’ Flew said in a telephone interview from England.” He also recently said that biologists’ investigation of DNA “has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce [life], that intelligence must have been involved” (U.S. National – AP Website, 9 December 2004).